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Ethics survey shows there’s more to do

A new report from ACCA exposes a worrying level of unethical behaviour in the workplace in the UK. ACCA’s Brian McEnery explains all

December 2017

In our latest innovation, ACCA’s new Ethics and Professional Skills module went live on 31 October. Leading up to the new module’s launch we published some research into ethics in the workplace across the UK and Ireland.
The survey revealed that a nearly a quarter of workers have been put under pressure to act unethically at work (agreed mostly by those aged under 35). Examples include talking about a colleague behind their back; misusing the company’s time; lying to hide mistakes; bullying; stealing from work; taking credit for work they did not do; using bias to promote or avoid promoting someone; and using a position of power to harass someone.
The survey also found half of British workers have encountered some kind of unethical situation at work, and more than 50% thought where they worked was not committed to ethical behaviour. Despite a feeling that ethical behaviour at work is in short supply, employees themselves do not appear to want to do anything about it. Nearly half of people questioned said they would turn a blind eye to unethical acts if they witnessed them.
Today’s organisations need to be alert to the role of professional ethics. We are 10 years on from the start of the global financial crisis, yet economies, communities and individuals around the world are still living with the effects of 2007/08.
There has never been a more important time for those in business to consider the role of ethics. The research showed that organisations are facing a challenge, as 46% believe their organisation isn’t committed to instilling an ethical agenda. Organisations have a responsibility to engage with their staff to ensure they act ethically.
Professionals in today’s business landscape are trusted by the public and clients to commit to a high standard of ethical behaviour and always ‘do the right thing’, especially in light of the financial crisis. That commitment grows further in today’s automated age, where human judgment becomes more integral to how decisions are made. When faced with a data breach or a company’s exposure to supply chain irregularities, customers and investors won’t look to a systems bot to blame.

Eliminating unethical behaviour:
Given the complexity of many financial transactions, as well as the importance of best practice to business and society, professional bodies have a particular responsibility to uphold and lead on ethical issues.
Eliminating unethical behaviour is a goal for many organisations, from exposing multi-million-dollar financial scams to stopping dangerous practices. It’s a problem being faced worldwide that ultimately destroys integrity and thus undermines ethical behaviour.
Speaking up or blowing the whistle is a major step in highlighting wrongdoing and unethical behaviour in organisations. Ultimately, it is organisations and not individuals who are responsible for ensuring whistleblowers feel secure enough to speak up. Through robust processes and a commitment to visible action, employees will see that wrong-doing will be dealt with promptly, fairly and in a transparent manner, and will therefore be far less likely to make an issue a public one.
Over half of the respondents felt that people in a position of power act more unethically than others. Workers have witnessed their boss or superior talking about a colleague behind their back (26%), taking credit for work they haven’t done (21%) and witnessed them bullying at work (17%). These kinds of behaviours are detrimental.
While organisations will have set out rules and codes to create the right behaviours in the organisation, it is staff who are central to whether, and how, they are followed.
An organisation’s culture is set out from the top. Effective leadership results from a trustworthy system of accountability, and promoting accountability at executive board level is essential to a healthy corporate culture that features sound ethical practices.
Again, the effectiveness of a speak-up arrangement depends on managers at every level of the organisation. Employees expect managers to listen to them and take necessary action in response to concerns raised. When employees think that management is neglecting their concern they are more likely to consider taking the issue to a regulator or other external parties.
Sadly, unethical behaviour is never far from the headlines. From banking to the film industry, the consensus must be made that both those at the top and those entering professions should demonstrate their commitment to showing that doing the right thing also means doing better business.
• Brian McEnery is ACCA Global President

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