Philippa Foster Back CBE, Director, Institute of Business Ethics, London, UK
AT: You regularly survey Europe on a wide range of ethics topics, and every three years release a very large Ethics at Work survey. What are some highlights of the latest survey?
PFB: Reassuringly, the majority of employees say their organization acts with honesty. Across the eight European countries surveyed, the average was 78%, ranging from 69% in Germany to 88% in Ireland. This was up in Germany and France from 2015 results, showing a 6% and 5% rise respectively.
A third of employees have been aware of misconduct in the past year, and more are likely to have spoken up (54%), particularly in the UK (67%), but less likely in Portugal (49%).
AT: One notable point from the survey is that a lack of follow-through on ethics issues by the company can be highly corrosive to trust. It seems to me that employees are saying, “If you want us to take ethics seriously, we have to see you doing the right thing by us.” Is that fair to say? And how can employers demonstrate their own commitment to ethics?
PFB: Certainly the effect of providing a work environment that is perceived to be supportive to ethics will lead to more positive perceptions of how frequently honesty is practiced at work (91%) than in those organizations that are deemed unsupportive (53%). Allied to this are results that fewer people are aware of misconduct, feel less pressured to compromise on ethics, and are more willing to speak up (70%), measured against those who feel unsupported (47%).
Demonstrating support for ethics in our survey includes tone from the top, stakeholder engagement, and addressing misconduct actively. An ethics program of course is wider than these three elements, but they are perhaps key measures for employees in assessing their company’s attitude to ethics.
AT: How are you finding the ethics climate in Europe to be different than in the US these days?
PFB: The issues being discussed are always very similar, as many revolve around human behavior, technology, human rights, and the ability to speak up safely.
The approach to solving these topics and giving guidance varies, as does the cultural backdrop in the US to Europe. In part, this is still a compliance versus an ethics/principles-based approach, but I hear many more US companies now talking about values and doing the right thing—not just focusing on the legal approach.
AT: For someone managing ethics in the US, what advice would you give about how they should approach the European workforce?
PFB: Whilst I appreciate companies wish to roll out global training programs, do “sense check” them for local suitability. I have seen some horrors, such as rolling out junior training or training appropriate for only one US segment of the business to all European employees as mandatory, senior staff included. It landed badly!
In Europe, a lot of training tends to be risk-based, meaning training employees on those subjects most applicable to their roles rather than everything to everyone.
In the main, codes do travel, and as long as they are written in plain language, will work across the US and Europe, but there are some real cultural differences between European countries, so do check these, as a one-size-fits-all approach may not work.
AT: What are some of the emerging ethics issues?
PFB: The issue, though I would say it has already emerged even if the public discussion has yet really to happen, is the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI). The technology is way ahead of where the public acceptance of it is, and companies that are not addressing their customers’ attitudes (particularly those directly supplying the public) need to do so. There is the usage issue and the creation issue as well—are algorithms free of bias for instance? A third issue impacts the future workforce—what will that look like?
Allied to this but important for every company is to create the environment where employees feel able to speak up freely and without fear. The Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) is shortly to launch a website and app (the IBE Speak Up Toolkit) to give guidance to anyone thinking of and being concerned by speaking up.
AT: In the US, a lot of attention has been paid to Millennials and how their attitudes differ from previous generations. Are you seeing generational differences in Europe when it comes to ethics in the workplace?
PFB: There is evidence of differing views, as every up-and-coming generation has had, but the level of awareness of certain issues is striking. The IBE did a Briefing (No. 48) on this issue, called Business Ethics across the Generations, see www.ibe.org.uk.
In the recent Ethics at Work survey, we did analyze responses by age bracket for the various questions. For instance, we asked about common workplace practices that might be questionable, such as making personal calls from work, taking pencils and pens, favoring family and friends when hiring, and pretending to take a day off sick. Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger employees in the 18-34 age bracket tended to find each of the practices more acceptable than older employees, and they have a lower opinion of companies acting honestly. This tallies with them being more likely to have spotted misconduct and felt pressured to compromise ethics.
AT: Thank you, Philippa, for sharing you insights from the survey with us.