Ethical “have-nots”

The central notion of behavioral ethics is that We are not as ethical as we think and the central notion of compliance/ethics programs is that they can help fill the gap – at least for business organizations – left by our imperfect human nature.  But do C&E programs actually work? The Institute for Business Ethics’ recently published 2015 Ethics at Work survey of employees in the UK and Western Europe – available for free download here (and another aspect of which was discussed last week on this blog) – has some important data on this always compelling issue.

Among other things, the study asked whether the respondents’ respective employers had various elements of a C&E program – or at least what might be considered the more ethics, rather than compliance, aspects of such – and then correlated those responses with answers to questions about the employers’ ethical behavior. The findings were striking.

For instance, of those respondents (from Continental Europe) whose companies had all the elements of a program, 74% said that their line manager supports them in following the company’s ethical standards but for those with none of these elements the number was a mere 27%. The results were nearly identical for a question about whether those who violate their companies’ ethical standards are disciplined.

While not as grim as Thomas Hobbes’s famous description of unchecked human nature causing life to be “nasty, brutish and short,” this picture of the ethical “have nots” is nonetheless quite dreary.  For someone considering investing in, seeking employment at or doing business with such an ethical laggard it could repellent  enough to influence a decision unfavorable to a company. And in light these stakes, is there any defense for corporate directors and senior managers who choose not to have C&E programs for their companies?

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