What do employees want to speak up about?

01 July 2019

Tags: Speak Up, Employees

"If Liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,” wrote George Orwell in the original preface to Animal Farm. This is, in essence, what speaking up about ethical misconduct in the workplace is also about. 

Encouraging employees to raise their concerns and put in place mechanisms that allow them to do so effectively, and without fear of reprisals, is important to creating open organisations. Knowing what employees think is key in developing an ethical culture where issues can be addressed before they become damaging problems. 

Listening to employees’ views on this issue is also what we have done at the IBE. Our Ethics at Work: survey of employees  covered over 9,000 employees in 12 countries around the world. From this research, it emerges that unethical behaviour in the workplace is still a problem, with an average of one in three employees saying that they have been aware of misconduct over the past year at work. This figure is even higher amongst Millennials – those aged between 18 and 34 – where it reaches 35%. (You can read more about IBE’s research on ethics in different generations here). 

The Ethics at Work survey suggests that Millennials are more engaged than other employees with their organisation’s ethics programme and therefore might be more sensitive to ethical issues. They are therefore better able to recognise misconduct and this increased ethics acumen is likely to lead Millennials to put higher expectations on their employers to be true to their ethical values. This makes it all the more important for organisations to enable them to voice their concerns.

But what are the most common ethical issues that employees are aware of in their workplace? Whilst issues such as fraud or safety violations are mentioned, our research shows that the main concerns are people issues: treating people inappropriately or unethically, abusive behaviour and bullying. 

It is worth noting that this is particularly true for female employees, who are more likely than their male colleagues to have been aware of bullying and harassment at work. This is in line with some of the concerns that the #MeToo movement raised over the fair treatment of women at work and it shows that there is more work to be done to improve workplaces in this area.

A significant number of employees still find it difficult to get their voice heard within their organisation. On average, only 54% of employees in Europe who had been aware of misconduct decided to speak up, while 43% did not. We noticed some differences from country to country in this figure. In some countries, such as the UK, the importance of speaking up about ethical issues at work has been debated for a long time and this is reflected in the relatively high percentage of employees who do raise their concerns (67%). 

The most prominent reasons given by employees for not raising their concerns were that they did not trust their organisation to take any corrective action and that they were concerned that their job might be jeopardised. These are both factors that organisations can influence. Reporting concerns can require courage, particularly in an unsupportive environment. Employees won’t take the risk if they believe that nothing will be done about it. 

One of the ways to address this issue is to encourage any employee with a particular concern to first share it with a colleague and then, if they agree about it, together raise it with a senior member of staff. Two are always more likely to be listened to than one. The IBE Speak Up Toolkit has some pointers as to how to have an effective conversation when you’re raising a concern.

Ethical misconduct can have a serious impact on the culture of the organisation. Apart for the obvious potential reputational and financial hits when these issues are discovered and made public, it is important to consider the impact that it has on the working environment of the organisation. 

Our survey shows that employees that are aware of ethical misconduct at work are more likely to have negative perceptions of the honesty of their organisation and how it engages with its stakeholders, as well as more negative views on the ability of their line manager to promote ethics in practice. Providing effective tools for employees to raise their concerns is an important step to tackle this, but our research shows that there is still room for improvement in this area. We have seen many more organisations across the board making Speaking Up one of their priorities going forward. We will keep monitoring employee’s perceptions on this and we are hopeful that in three years’ time, in the next edition of this IBE survey, there will be some positive stories to tell. 


Guendalina Donde
Guendalina Donde

Head of Research, IBE, g.donde@ibe.org.uk

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

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