Workplace ethics improved during Covid, poll finds

More than a third of UK employees say their opinion of their organisation has improved because of its response to the pandemic

Ethical standards in the workplace have improved since the start of the pandemic, a poll has found, but many employees still fear reprisal for reporting misconduct.

The Ethics at Work 2021 report, conducted by the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE), found that 35 per cent of UK employees said their organisation’s response to coronavirus has improved their opinion of how ethically the company behaves.

This compared to just 7 per cent who said their opinion of their organisation had worsened, and 57 per cent who said it stayed the same.

The survey, which polled 10,000 employees globally, found that 86 per cent of British employees said honesty was always or frequently practised in their organisations, up from 81 per cent in 2018.

Similarly, the proportion of Brits who said they had been aware of misconduct at work fell from nearly a quarter (24 per cent) to just 17 per cent over the same period, while the proportion who felt pressured to compromise their organisation's standards of behaviour fell slightly from 12 to 10 per cent.

However, of those UK employees who were aware of misconduct at work, just half (55 per cent) spoke to a manager or another appropriate person about it, down from 67 per cent in 2018 – with the majority (62 per cent) saying they chose not speak up because they did not believe corrective action would be taken.

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Employees who did speak up reported that they were more likely to be satisfied with the outcome than in 2018 (65 per cent compared to 59 per cent), however the poll also found that 45 per cent of UK employees experienced retaliation after they reported misconduct.

Ian Peters, director of the IBE, said the pandemic had been a “catalyst in employee perceptions” of ethical business behaviour.

“The good news is that considerably more employees believe that ethical standards have improved during this period than believe that they have worsened, and perceived levels of misconduct have decreased in every country for which comparable data is available,” he said.

But, Peters added, despite the overall improvement in business ethics, the failure of some organisations to live up to their values was “much more visible than it was”, while “too many employees feel justifiable fear” of inaction or retaliation if they report misconduct.

“The need for ethical authenticity has never been greater: employers need to do the right thing, not just say the right thing,” said Peters.