by Gael O’Brien

Ethics shape company realities. Whether ethics’ presence supports an engaged workforce or its absence fuels misconduct, it matters to go deeper into the wisdom of ethics.

Recent business ethics surveys provide information about questions we might not have considered and answers that convey the strength or weakness of ethics’ impact.  I’ve focused on findings in three business ethics surveys regarding:

  • When business feels especially connected to ethics;
  • the quagmire when misconduct stays; and
  • when thinking about ethics doesn’t go far enough.

The three surveys are: The Association of International Certified Professional Accountants 2023 Business Ethics Survey with 1,820 US and UK respondents with business leaders and Gen Zs to Boomers; The Deloitte Global 2023 Gen Z and Millennial Survey with 22,856 Gen Z and Millennial employee respondents in 44 countries; and The Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI) 2023 Global Business Ethics Survey with 75,495 employee respondents in 42 countries.

When Business Feels Especially Connected to Ethics

Key findings in the AICPA survey indicate the possibility of ethics actually being seen as the force it is:

  • “Ethics is seen as increasingly important to business. Compared to five years ago, 71% of respondents indicate that it is more important for a company to have ethical business practices.”
  • “… a majority say a company’s ethics is more important to nearly all aspects of its business including its public perception (68%), its ability to attract good talent (66%) and its culture (65%).”
  • “Business leaders prioritize ethics as essential to business. Compared to other audiences, Business Leaders are even more likely to say that ethics is more important to many aspects of its business than in was five years ago;” and
  • “Both the UK (85%) and US (78%) are optimistic “that companies will be more ethical/compliant five years from now.”
  • The takeaway: “Ethics is critical to every element of business success.”

Younger employees in the AICPA survey indicated concern over harassment, but it didn’t take on the dimensions experienced in the global Deloitte and ECI surveys. Misconduct, microaggressions, and harassment are the antithesis of ethical practices and behaviors and serve no leader wanting a successful company.

The Quagmire When Misconduct Stays

According to the Deloitte Survey, Gen Z and millennials are particularly affected by harassment and its cohorts. Of those who experienced harassment, around eight in 10 reported it to their employer. However, a third of Gen Zs and a quarter of millennials don’t think the issues were handled effectively. Sixty-one percent of Gen Zs and 49% of millennials experienced harassment and microaggressions at work in the surveys’ previous 12 months. Common harassments were offensive communications, colleagues’ advances, and physical contact. Microaggressions included being excluded, undermined by leaders based on gender, and unwanted jokes at the person’s expense.

The Deloitte survey recommends providing education “to reinforce a clear and common understanding about what harassment and microaggressions are.” For those without self-awareness, their behaviors may seem appropriate when they are not. A survey recommendation also addresses the need to foster a culture of trust: enabling employees to report issues and feel confident they’ll be taken seriously and handled effectively.

The ECI survey indicates employees are dealing with workplace misconduct at an all-time high and retaliation against those who reported misconduct also high: “…almost half of employees around the world who reported misconduct experienced retaliation.” It’s important to note that supporting an ethical environment mattered enough to the 72% who saw misconduct and reported it. Not surprisingly, 87% of employees say their workplace doesn’t have a strong ethical culture.

ECI framed the survey’s big picture: “Businesses face higher risk for misconduct and loss of trust than ever before.” The survey report indicates that businesses aren’t taking proven steps to significantly reduce their risks. Employees continue to face very high levels of pressure in the workplace to compromise ethical standards including workplace standards and the law.

ECI survey recommendations on enabling ethics to regain workplace strength:

  • “Put in place a High-Quality Ethics & Compliance Program.”
  • “Focus on managers in the effort to reduce undue pressure.”
  • “Regularly remind employees of the resources that are available to receive reports of suspected misconduct.”
  • “Implement a retaliation prevention program.”
  • “Encourage top managers and supervisors to engage in behaviors that build a strong ethical culture.”
  • “Hold employees at all levels accountable to your organization’s values and standards”;  and
  • “Assess your organization’s ethics & compliance program, culture, and impact.”

When Thinking About Ethics Doesn’t Go Far Enough

The AICPA survey findings about ethics being critical to every element of business success sound wonderful. Especially if ethics makes it to the top of leaders’ busy lists. Nonetheless, there are challenges ahead to address – a culture for starters that doesn’t just say we don’t tolerate misconduct, retaliation, and harassment but acts on it. It’s also how leaders and managers engage employees to be part of supporting a culture and work environment they can be proud of.

It’s too easy to do ethics light. Laying the deeper foundation for understanding what ethics means can be seen in basic issues. Mentoring, discussions, support, and training are all things that help newer employees understand what the culture is. These issues from some of AICPA findings  demonstrate the education needed to address gaps:

  • Respondents had two choices to select their reason for having ethical business practices:
    • (#1) “only because of rules and regulations set by others” or
    • (#2 ) “because it is the right thing to do.”

While 66% of business leaders voted for #2, 34% voted for #1; Gen Z votes were 56% for #1 and 45% for #2. Millennials, Gen X and Boomers voted more for #2.

  • Developing the next generation of ethical business leaders is falling behind. This only makes Millennials and Gen Zs less engaged in leadership and less a part of the company.
  • Most responders are only “familiar” with their company’s code of ethics; not everyone is offered training and those having it who said it was very effective ranged from 26% (younger employees) to 46% (business leaders): the majority rated training as “somewhat effective”: there is work to be done; and
  • Of those 20 to 30 years old, only 28% said they were familiar with the company’s code of ethics: much lower than others. They need training/support in learning the ethics code; and
  • Business leaders considered themselves very ethical (55%) but what about the 41% that indicated they were somewhat ethical? “Somewhat ethical” doesn’t fuel trust for any of us who slip into that category. Clarity around the code of ethics and company values likely will elevate what we want to stand for.

Staying on top of ethics reinforces our continual growth in building organizations where leaders and employees can thrive in their work environment.

Gael O’Brien is a catalyst in leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is also a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, on the Advisory Board of the Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University, and a Senior Fellow at The Institute for Social Innovation at Babson College.

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