July 15, 2024

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UK employees ‘less ethical’ than European peers, say researchers

UK employees seem to take a more lenient approach than the European average to questionable workplace practices, according to a survey by the Institute of Business Ethics, which looks at employees’ experiences of ethics at their place of work.

An important part of the survey is to establish whether employees are able to identify ethical issues relating to everyday choices that they might have to face in the workplace and whether they apply ethical values to their decision-making.

To answer these questions, respondents to this survey were presented with nine common work-related scenarios and were asked whether or not they considered them acceptable.

Pretending to be sick to take a day off; minor fiddling/exaggeration of travel expenses and charging personal entertainment to expenses are considered the most unacceptable practices in the UK, in line with views from employees across Europe. But a higher percentage of UK respondents say these practices are acceptable. One of these issues (making personal phone calls from work) is considered acceptable by more than half of UK respondents (53%) – the first time in the history of the survey that any issues has been reported as acceptable by more than 50% of UK respondents.

IBE’s Director, Philippa Foster Back CBE says:

“Although some of these issues may seem trivial, respondents’ answers are an important indicator of changes in acceptability of practices, as well as where employees’ ethical boundaries lie. Employees either ignoring or being unable to identify the ethical dimensions of a specific situation increases the ethics risk for organisations.”

The Ethics at Work: 2018 survey of employees is the only one of its kind covering Europe which provides real insight into employees’ views on ethics across all sectors and job roles. This new report by the IBE looks specifically at the data from UK employees and compares it with other countries.

The survey, first introduced in 2005, asks employees how they experience ethical dilemmas in their day-to-day working lives. It looks at whether they have witnessed misconduct; whether they have reported it; and what stops them reporting ethical violations. It provides real insight into what supports employees in doing the right thing.

Pressure to compromise ethical standards has risen.

One in eight (12%) respondents in the UK say that they have felt some form of pressure to compromise their organisation’s ethical standards (compared with 16% across Europe). But the UK figure has increased from 8% in 2015. For UK employees, the main source of pressure to compromise ethical standards comes from being under-resourced.

“Although we see this increase in pressure across other countries surveyed, this is particularly relevant to the UK as we are about to enter a period of uncertainty regarding Brexit,” says Philippa Foster Back CBE. “Employees are under more stress to deliver than ever before, and this is increasing the pressure to then cut ethical corners. These figures should be seen as a warning sign to organisations that they need to be more supportive of their employees when it comes to making ethical decisions.”

More encouragingly, a quarter (24%) of UK employees say they have been aware of misconduct, which is below the European average of 30%). However, the overall percentage of UK employees who have been aware of misconduct is the highest it has been since 2005.

Two thirds (67%) of those who had witnessed misconduct had raised their concerns compared with the European average of 54%. This is a 12 percentage point increase from the UK’s 2015 figure and shows an increased willingness of employees to raise concerns.

“Global movements like #metoo and #timesup are having ramifications throughout the workplace,” says Philippa Foster Back, “not just in terms of people speaking up about harassment, but in feeling empowered to raise concerns about other issues. We hope that this is the beginning of speaking up being seen as business as usual.”