Employees’ voices: a glass half full

08 December 2021

Tags: Ethics Programme issues, Treatment of Employees

The results of our latest Ethics at Work survey bring us some good news, but also some red flags that cannot be ignored as organisations shape their ethical agenda for the future.

The 2021 results of our Ethics at Work survey give us some reasons to be confident that the work that many organisations are doing to improve their ethics standards is paying off. Or is it? 

Certainly, employees seem to have positive views about the honesty of their organisations. Not only, on average, do 86% of respondents think that honesty is practised at least frequently in their organisation, but many countries have seen an increase in that percentage over time. For example, Germany has moved from 63% in 2015, to 69% in 2018, to 89% in 2021, and France has gone up from 66% in 2015 to 71% in 2018, to 89% in 2021.

But here’s where it gets interesting. If we look at employees' attitudes towards unethical practices that involve minor breaches of the rules, we get a different picture. On average, 40% say that minor breaches of the rules are inevitable in a modern organisation and 13% go as far as saying that it is acceptable to artificially increase money in the books as long as no money is stolen. What is most concerning is that those in managerial positions seem to be the ones that are more likely to have lenient attitudes towards these practices. For example, 44% of managers agree that minor breaches of the rules are inevitable in a modern organisation, and 19% of them say that it is acceptable to artificially increase profits in the books as long as no money is stolen. 

These results reveal an important point, especially when we set out to assess an organisation's ethical culture: sometimes, when we are asked to evaluate how ethical we (or our organisation) behave, we get it wrong. As many experiments in the field of behavioural sciences illustrate the way our brain is programmed often leads us to overestimate our ability to act ethically or to overlook situations where we might fall short of our own ethical standards. 

So, how can organisations address these issues and provide the right support to all those employees who are committed to doing the right thing in principle, but might find it somewhat difficult in practice? First, it is important to have clear standards of expected behaviour (set out in a code of ethics), letting everyone know what these standards are (through effective communication and dedicated training sessions), making sure that misconduct is reported and addressed (via a Speak Up/Whistleblowing line), and ensuring that people know where to find advice when they are unsure about something (through an information helpline). These are the key building blocks of an ethics programme that we asked our respondents about.

Our survey suggests that there is still room for improvement on this front. While codes of ethics (or similar documents) seem to be relatively common, especially in some countries such as South Africa and the US, the percentages of employees who are aware of the other building blocks of an ethics programme are lower. Less than half of employees are aware of how to obtain advice on how to behave ethically within their organisation, and only 52% say that their organisation offers ethics training. 

Speak Up mechanisms are somewhat more common: 57% of employees in 2021 were aware of a means of reporting misconduct confidentially within their organisation, and the picture is even rosier when compared with the 2018 results. For instance, 56% of Swiss respondents were aware of it in 2021, compared to only 36% in 2018, and 53% of Spanish employees were aware of it in 2021 compared to 37% in 2018. As Speak Up arrangements become more popular, it is worth considering how their effectiveness can be improved as well. Way too often we still hear that they are used only as the ‘nuclear option’, used to report the most serious instances of fraud or corruption within the organisation. While this is certainly important, it is also important to let employees know that they can use these tools to report any type of concerns, even those that seem not too serious or when they are unsure. This would allow organisations to leverage their knowledge and insights, gathering crucial information to build and maintain a strong ethical culture. 

Finally, a word about managers. Managers tend to have rosier views about most of the elements investigated in our survey. They are more likely to have positive views of how frequently honesty is practised in their place of work, and of the ability of their organisation to engage with internal and external stakeholders on ethical matters. They are more likely to be aware of the formal elements of an ethics programme offered by their employer and to have more positive views about the ability of their managers to lead by example. However, they are also more likely to feel pressured to compromise their organisation’s standards of ethical behaviour and, perhaps as a result, there is an alarmingly high percentage of respondents who say that their managers reward good results even when they are achieved through ethically questionable practices. 

The latest findings from our Ethics at Work research have given us plenty of food for thought which we will certainly take into account as we develop our plans for 2022. In particular, we look forward to working with our network to understand what more can be done to provide employees with the support that they need to be always at their best and have the courage to do the right thing even (or especially) in the most challenging situations. 

Find out more: Ethics at Work: 2021 International Survey of Employees


Guendalina Dondé
Guendalina Dondé

Head of Research

Guen coordinates the work of the Research Hub and conducts research and writes on a variety of business ethics topics, including IBE surveys, briefing and reports. She advises organisations on how to make their code of ethics and policies more effective and conducts benchmarking exercises on specific issues.

She delivers bespoke training sessions, as well as talks and presentations on the IBE research. She is secretary to Professionals against Corruption, at the IBE (PaC, at IBE), which brings together professionals from real estate, legal and accounting professions to prevent corruption.

Before joining the IBE, she collaborated with the inter-university centre for business ethics and corporate social responsibility EconomEtica in developing the code of ethics for the Italian Association of Management Consultants and worked for CSR Europe, a European CSR Business Network based in Brussels. She holds a master’s degree in Business Ethics and CSR from the University of Trento in Italy.

Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have the right to do and what is right to do – Potter Stewart

Read lessmore