The recent headlines about government surveillance and tax avoidance by big multinationals have raised fresh questions about organizations' ethical conduct. What's more, it's clear that public expectations of business behavior have continued to rise as we've become increasingly aware, over recent years, of their ethical failings.
Despite this, ILM's newest research, Added values: The importance of ethical leadership has found that nearly two-thirds of managers have been asked to do something they felt was unethical at some point in their career. For some managers it was more than once and for one in 10 of them, it had been serious enough for them to leave their employer.
So why do ethics matter in the workplace and what should you do, as an employee, if you find yourself facing an ethical dilemma?
It is important to believe that the organization you work for operates ethically, for a number of reasons. It makes you feel more committed, and as a result more likely to stay in your job. Sharing your organisation's values will motivate you to work harder and do your job better.
As we have seen time and again, unethical corporate behaviour not only damages a company's external reputation, it also impacts negatively on the retention of staff (as well as the recruitment of potential new employees) who may be unwilling to work for an organisation that is perceived as unscrupulous. Previous research by ILM also shows that a positive work environment makes people more productive, with a happy manager and team performing to a higher standard.
Of course, people have different definitions of what 'unethical' means, but some 43 percent also said that they had been asked to do something that was against their employer's own published values, which is extremely worrying. Our research also found that the more senior a manager is, the more aligned they are to their company's values. It's the more junior managers who are least likely to be aware of their company values, and they are the ones who directly supervise the majority of the UK workforce. As an employee, you are much more likely to report to one of these more junior managers, and so are more likely to be asked to go against your own or the corporation's values.
So what should you do if you see something happen that you disagree with or are asked to do something your employer has pledged not to do? Should you go to the papers, like Edward Snowden of the NSA did, or should you report it internally? Ideally, you will have the confidence in your own employer's whistle-blowing process; unfortunately, 28% of our respondents weren't that confident that reporting an ethical breach at their workplace was very wise, and were worried that they might be negatively affected if they did. However, the majority do think it's safe to do so, and our recommendation is that you should always flag up ethical breaches through internal channels first before considering blowing the whistle to the media or an external agency. This should always be seen as an absolute last resort.
However, in a well-run organisation you should not be asked to do something unethical, and every employee should be prepared to talk about what is right and wrong, in terms of workplace decisions and behaviour. The more people talk about ethical issues, the less likely it is that they will be asked to behave unethically. The more that people have a clear consensus about what values they all share, the more those values will guide everyone's behaviour. However, in the rare event that you are asked to do something unethical, or see someone else behaving unethically, you should feel confident that you can speak to a manager about it and that your concerns will be treated seriously. That's the mark of effective leadership.
If the worst happens and you can't resolve the problem, then you have to make the choice of staying and accepting it, or showing your disagreement by leaving. That is painful for you and is costly for employers, which is why not tolerating unethical behaviour is good for both.
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