Two thirds of UK managers complain of unethical demands by employers

Employee’s beliefs can differ from that of their employers, and that can cause them to face an ethical dilemma. Take yesterday’s news reports of an ex-CIA operative who alleges that the data-gathering centre GCHQ circumvented the law to gain information on UK citizens, or the recent (rejected) claims by three British Christians to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg who argued their religious rights where being violated by their employers. Following the banking scandals, public expectations on business ethics have risen over the past few years, but are CSR policies being put into practise? It seems doubtful, as new research by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) and Business in the Community (BITC) reveals that nearly two thirds (63 per cent) of managers have been expected to behave unethically at some point in their career.

The report, Added values: The importance of ethical leadership, found that 9 per cent of managers have been asked to break the law at work at some point in their career, while one in 10 have left their jobs as a result of being asked to do something that made them feel uncomfortable. This is in spite of 77 per cent of managers believing that, since 2008, the general public’s expectations of UK organisations’ ethical behaviour and CSR have risen.

In the survey of over 1,000 managers across the public and private sectors, 83 per cent said their organisation had a values statement but over two fifths (43 per cent) had been pressured to behave in direct violation of it, with 12 per cent of managers saying that the correlation between employee behaviour and company values was not close ‘at all’ in their workplace.

In addition over a quarter (27 per cent) of respondents were concerned their career would suffer if they were to report an ethical breach, with whistleblowing fears higher amongst more junior managers (17 per cent of whom were certain of experiencing negative consequences) than directors (9 per cent).

Charles Elvin, Chief Executive of the Institute of Leadership & Management, said, “Business ethics have come under increased public scrutiny in recent years, but our research highlights just how many people are still facing ethical conflicts at work.

“As well as damaging a company’s reputation, we see that ethical failings can have a negative impact on employee happiness, loyalty and trust in their organisation.

“Not all ethical decisions will be black and white, but an explicit and consistent set of values which are embedded within the organisation and reflected across all of its actions – from strategic decisions down to day-to-day activities – will lay the foundations for ethical behaviour. Leaders and managers, including those at more junior levels, have a crucial role to play in communicating their organisation’s values and should be given the support they need to enable cultural change.”

Stephen Howard, Chief Executive of Business in the Community, said: “Cultural change is not something that can be instilled in organisations overnight, but this research indicates where some of the key pressure points lie. The importance of junior and middle managers in setting an organisation’s ethical tone cannot be overestimated – they often feel squeezed and are sceptical about how well corporate values map to their own, are relevant to their work or are demonstrated by their colleagues.

“Responsible leaders must make sure the managers throughout their organisation are involved in the creation of values and understand how those values apply to their day to day work. Otherwise they cannot be sure the values as written are the ones that are lived, exposing their organisation to potential ethical breaches and reputational risk.”

ILM and BITC’s recommendations for successfully embedding organisational values and ethics include:

1.  Having organisational values statements reduces the likelihood of ethical breaches by employees, but our research shows they are far more effective if these values are agreed in consultation with staff and stakeholders, so that they create a sense of ownership and commitment, and become a powerful embodiment of what the organisation stands for.

2.  Values need to be reflected in actions by managers at all levels. Our research showed that they have less influence on more junior managers, so efforts need to be made to ensure their engagement.

3.  Having a clear policy to encourage and enable staff to report any concerns over breaches of ethical conduct is important, but it is crucial that it is seen to be without risk of sanction or reprisals. Celebrating those who report perceived ethical breaches and explaining how the organisation has responded is one way of making sure that whistleblowing is shown to be welcome.

4.  The organisation’s top leadership plays a crucial role in communicating and showcasing its values, and should actively seek to demonstrate their commitment to those values by their day to day behaviour, and by symbolic acts that make it clear what should be done, and what should not.

5.  Every organisation should be willing to listen to what the public expects of them and state how this links with its own values, making them clear and visible both internally and externally. This doesn’t mean that they must allow the public to determine the organisation’s values, but be clear about what is important for the organisation and how this reflects public expectations.