Institute for Business Ethics Issues Survey Results on British Public’s Attitude Toward Business Ethics

On December 13, the London-based Institute for Business Ethics (IBE) issued its Attitudes of the British Public to Business Ethics 2018 report.  As it has done for the last 15 years, the IBE surveyed the British public for its views on how ethical British business is.  This report provides an instructive counterpoint to the IBE’s series of country- and region-specific Ethics at Work surveys for 2018 — including Europe (July 2018), the United Kingdom (September 2018), Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom (November 2018), Portugal (November 2018), and France (December 2018) – that focus on employees’ views of ethics at work.

This report contains a number of significant findings about the British public’s attitudes:

  • General View of Business Ethics: The IBE reported that public trust in business “is at its highest since the survey began in 2003.” Sixty-two percent of those surveyed responded that they believe British business generally acts ethically, compared to 30 percent who believe it generally behaves unethically.  On this issue, there are notable difference between three age groups.  While 35 percent of Baby Boomers (55+) believe business behaves unethically (virtually unchanged from 2017), 31 percent of Generation Xers (35-54) share that belief (a 4 percent decrease from 2017) and only 24 percent of Millennials (25-34) have that belief (a 12 percent decrease from 2017).
  • Issues Needing Addressing: The top issues that respondents said needed addressing included the following:
    • Corporate tax avoidance (33 percent). This issue had the most support in all three age groups: Baby Boomers (41 percent), GenXers (35 percent), and Millennials (25 percent).
    • Executive pay (24 percent).
    • Environmental responsibility (24 percent).
    • Work-home balance for employees (23 percent)
    • Exploitative labor (21 percent).
    • Protection of customer data/data privacy (18 percent). This issue reflected the highest level of interest among Baby Boomers (23 percent), followed by GenXers (18 percent) and Millennials (15 percent).
    • Employees being able to speak out about company wrongdoing (15 percent). This issue, for which the percentage of public support consistently declined since 2006, prompted the IBE to remark that “[v]iewed in light of the findings of the IBE 2018 Ethics at Work survey that a third of UK employees who were aware of misconduct at work did not speak up about it, this change raises some serious concerns.”

Note:  In addition to the decline of interest in speaking up about company wrongdoing, it is interesting to observe that despite the highest-ever reported level of public trust in British business, respondents also rated corporate tax avoidance highest among issues that need addressing.  It is not clear from the IBE’s public documents whether respondents do not regard corporate tax avoidance as an ethical issue, or do see it as an ethical issue but consider it less egregious than other types of unethical business behavior (e.g., bribery or environmental pollution).

In any event, corporate-compliance officers in United Kingdom corporates should consider incorporating these findings into their corporate ethics training and highlighting some of the findings in briefing materials for senior management.  Further details are available in the survey report, as well as an IBE deck and infographic (available from the IBE).

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