Badly behaving bosses have been in the news again lately, with the ex-chairman of the Co-operative Bank, Paul Flowers, making headlines for his caught-on-camera drug use. His actions have no doubt tarnished the reputation of a bank founded on ethical principles - but his behaviour is only part of the reason why commentators are questioning the morals of the entire organisation.
The unfolding scandal has reminded me of a report I read a couple of months ago, from the Chartered Management Institute. Entitled Managers and the Moral Maze (PDF), it sets out the results from the CMI's recent research into workplace ethics, and makes for very enlightening and sobering reading.
What struck me first of all was the finding that 30% of managers had admitted to behaving unethically. When asked why, the majority cited greater pay and promotion opportunities as the reason - in other words, pure self interest. 35% of managers also admitted to telling white lies in the workplace every day - while this article from the US cites a survey suggesting over 90% of people regularly lie at work.
While the report is disconcerting enough, I was also interested by the difference the CMI found between managers and non-management workers. Only 13% of employees reported engaging in unethical behaviour, and the reason given by 43% of them was pressure from higher up. On top of that, a staggering 80% of workers felt that their manager doesn't set a good ethical example.
To me, this paints a picture of bad leadership and unethical business practices starting at the top and filtering down through the workforce, initiated by the personal interests of those highest on the ladder and causing employees lower down to feel uncomfortable. This is the opposite of what should be the case. Good business ethics need to start at the top, and inspire rest of the workforce.
This leads me onto another key finding of the CMI research - I was disappointed to read that only 17% of respondents were aware that their organisation had a values statement, and knew what was in it. This means that the majority of companies surveyed either didn't have one, or are just paying lip service to the idea without actually promoting it among their workforce.
At my ethical cleaning company The Clean Space, we have a clear values statement which is circulated around the whole workforce. It sets out our mission as a company, and lists core values including fairness and honesty, hard work and transparency. Our values are linked to staff appraisals and our Star of the Season - equivalent to employee of the month - is always someone who hasn't just worked exceptionally hard, but who has also demonstrated that they are living our values.
Ensuring that ethics are embedded in our culture is a continuous task - I consider it vital for all employees to have a good grasp of our values, and I lead by example. For small businesses, making sure to apply consistent ethical standards throughout the company is especially important.
I want to represent a way of doing business which is the antithesis of the 30% of managers surveyed by the CMI. They may be labouring under a false belief that being ruthless is just part and parcel of doing business - but they couldn't be more wrong. More and more, it's being demonstrated that behaving ethically can help a company grow.
The consensus from this discussion between business experts on BBC Radio was that while unethical behaviour may appear to help in the short term, in the longer term, doing things right will help to build and preserve a good reputation and the respect of peers and trading partners. Businesses are finding innovative ways to live their values - for example Julian Richer, the founder of high street hi-fi chain Richer Sounds, plans to bequeath the entire company to his employees in his will.
Consumers are also becoming more and more concerned with a company's integrity - this article from The Times details a US study which found nearly three quarters of people worldwide were willing to recommend a company based on its ethics alone.
The evidence is mounting that adopting a responsible approach to business is not just the right thing morally, but also the right thing for growth. That's why the CMI, following their survey, is calling for managers to get involved with their new code of practice which aims to put ethics at the heart of management. There's also a new book available offering advice to entrepreneurs about how to introduce ethical standards into their company.
Taking the CMI's research on board, there is clearly still a way to go in the business world in terms of leadership and good company values, but I believe that increasingly, people will realise what I have - that the rewards of nurturing an ethical culture in your business are potentially great.
To throw the question open to other business owners: what are the values of your company? What have you done recently to make sure your business reflects your ethical standards?