Now here is a surprise! The UK public’s trust in business has jumped and is at its highest level since 2003.
2003 was the first year the IBE Research Hub published the UK survey of public opinion of business behaviour. In 2018, 62% of the UK public said they think business behaves ethically. It was 52% in 2017.
But inspite of this improvement, we are still reading reports of corporate misconduct and ethical lapses. The media can shine a light on issues which may be considered ‘business as usual’ by some but actually need deeper scrutiny as the ethical problems unfold. The IBE Research Hub collates news stories of ethical concerns and lapses and publishes an annual analysis of the issues we see.
For example, this year we observed an increase in stories relating to the gig economy sector compared with 2017. While some companies operate solely using a gig economy structure, some 30% of the global working population employed this way (with 5 million in the UK alone). So it is fair to say that the issues which affect this sector – fair pay, employment rights, working conditions – are also a potential for issues in other sectors which employ agency and temporary workers.
The rise in gig work is part of a larger trend towards self-employment, so it’s important that all organisations consider these issues. If the self-employed do not feel they are treated well by the organisation they are working for, two things can happen. The good ones will leave; the bad ones are open to unethical behaviour. Organisation’s need to consider how they communicate their values to their staff – both employees and contractors; not just how they expect them to behave, but how the company behaves towards them.
The technology sector remains high on the list of sectors reported on in the media, specifically the social media sector. This could be seen as a result of an increasing awareness of the misuse of data and the manipulation of social media platforms.
Personal data is considered to be the new oil, except that unlike oil, it is infinite. We’re entering new territory, and just as we’re struggling with the ethical challenges of artificial intelligence (AI), as with any new territory, it takes some time to find the ‘ethical equilibrium’.
What data is collected and how it is used is an issue which all companies are dealing with in some form or other, whether it’s the data of their employees, their customers, or their potential customers. It may be that the organisation’s motivation is intended to be benevolent – for example, identifying which social media users are depressed so that their feeds can be manipulated to make them feel more positive. But, no matter what the intention, we are seeing society retaliating against the ways personal data is being used without consent.
Media reports on corporate malpractice make good headlines, and they also serve to educate and affect public opinion. Despite this, the person you pass in the street in the UK increasingly trusts those in the business sector, and the younger that person is, the higher the level of trust is likely to be.
But these bad news stories persist. Are you confident that your organisation has considered the ethical implications of these issues for your business? With the 24 hour news cycle and the viral nature of social media reporting, a reputation crisis may only be moments away.
What are the hot ethical topics E&C practitioners need to know?
Every year, the IBE produces two briefings which encapsulate the business ethics landscape – one looks at the ethical lapses we have captured in our media monitoring and the other summarises the surveys which will be of interest to anyone working in the field of corporate responsibility.
Simon advises the research function at the Institute; lending his vast experience and knowledge to help us deliver quality work for organisations who ask for comparative work to be done on aspects of their ethics policies.
Simon has worked in the paper industry and run the UK arm of an international association focusing on Anglo-North American relations.
Simon has an honours degree in Economics and Political Science from Trinity College, Dublin.