Many managers focus on rewarding results, fuelled by a ‘rosier view’ of ethical standards in their organisation than their subordinates, according to a new report.

A survey of almost 10,000 employees across 13 countries by the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) found the overall picture of ethics at work is improving, but there is still work to do to encourage employees to speak up about unethical practices in the workplace, and to stamp out retaliation against those that do so.

Cranfield University is the UK academic partner of the IBE, whose report Ethics at Work: 2021 international survey of employees found:

  • Ethical standards have improved since 2018, with ethics programmes having a big impact. Some 86% of employees say honesty is now practised always or frequently in their organisation
  • Many organisations responded well to the ethical challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, with over a third (37%) of employees saying they believe ethical standards have improved, and fewer than one in 10 (8%) believing they have worsened
  • However, having an ethics programme is not enough to stamp out unethical behaviour. Although more than half of employees (53%) say their organisation has a Speak Up mechanism to report misconduct confidentially, fear and futility often still prevent people from doing so. Only around half (57%) of employees who became aware of ethical misconduct say that they raised their concerns.
  • A shocking two-fifths (43%) of employees who spoke up about ethical misconduct say they experienced retaliation as a result
  • Almost half of employees (48%) in organisations with a comprehensive ethics programme say their line manager rewards employees who get good results, even if they use practices that are ethically questionable.

Professor Richard Kwiatkowski, Professor of Organisational Psychology at Cranfield School of Management and former Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Ethics Committee, said: “There are some really interesting findings here. While most people suggest that their organisations are actually acting ethically, from a psychological point of view, internal sensitisation to ethical issues seems to motivate greater involvement, awareness and hence reporting. Organisations should welcome this, as good business is exactly what we need to be striving for.”

Professor Kwiatkowski will work alongside fellow School of Management academic Dr Andy Angus, Reader in Economics, and colleagues at partner organisations across the world to help the IBE analyse the data gathered in more depth and understand how businesses can learn from it to improve their practices. They will also use it to inform their teaching.

“We will be able to teach about ethics, statistics, research design and analysis using real data from a real project with real world implications – very much what Cranfield is about – for the benefit of all our postgraduate students who deal with these matters every day,” Professor Kwiatkowski added.