Nearly two thirds of workers see unethical behaviour

07 December 2018

  • Yet 77 per cent say firm made no changes
  • Harassment, sexism and theft the most common unethical behaviour
  • Mid-level employees are the most likely offenders
  • Failure to act can lead to further bad behaviour within the business

Nearly two thirds of workers have experienced behaviour at work that would “probably result in widespread condemnation” if the public found out, a recent survey has found.

Yet 77 per cent said their company made no changes as a result of unethical behaviour being reported and 42 per cent said that had negatively changed their perception of their workplace.

Harassment, sexism, theft and verbal abuse were the most common unethical behaviours.

The survey by researchers at Warwick Business School also picked up reports of physical abuse, conflicts of interest, misuse of company resources, racism and discrimination.

Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School, said: “We see reports of a wide variety of unethical behaviours in the workplace. These have clear negative impacts on the well-being of UK workers and businesses, from disengagement and disillusion to increased stress and sickness.

"The scale of the problem suggests that workers often feel unable to speak out against unethical behaviour, allowing it to continue unchallenged and potentially leading to further unethical actions.”

The survey of nearly 1,000 workers provides a snapshot of unethical behaviour in the workplace as part of a new report, Leading Integrity: Towards an organisational ethics.

More than 40 per cent of those interviewed said they sometimes experienced unethical behaviour at work, while nine per cent said it happened more than half of the time. Eight per cent encountered unethical behaviour most of the time and three per cent said it happened all the time.

Mid-level employees were the most likely offenders, followed by junior employees.

While senior staff were least likely to behave in an unethical manner, those who did so tended to be the most regular offenders.

The report by Warwick Business School aims to better understand how and why unethical behaviour occurs in the workplace to help firms respond better and prevent future incidents.

The report claims corporate integrity was once considered an “additional benefit” companies could aspire to if they wished, but customers and stakeholders now expect integrity from any business.

For example, Amazon has faced a series of scandals over alleged poor treatment of warehouse workers and delivery drivers working illegal hours for less than the minimum wage.

The report also examines how different companies responded following ethical scandals. For example, when United Airlines forcibly removed a bloodied passenger from an over-booked flight in 2017, it tried to deny responsibility by blaming the passenger, a strategy which failed.

In contrast, when Volkswagen was accused of manipulating emissions tests, the CEO and the company launched an advertising campaign apologising and offering customers compensation.

By admitting error and rebuilding, the company minimised the inevitable reputational damage.

Edward Gardiner, Behavioural Design Lead at Warwick Business School, said: “The fact that these scandals keep occurring means businesses are not good at dealing with them or preventing them.

“Unethical behaviour cannot simply be blamed on one or two bad apples. Often there are problems with the culture, leadership, and structure of the business that allow it to continue.”

“By better understanding human behaviour, we hope businesses will be able to adopt practices to prevent many cases of unethical behaviour and better respond to the incidents which do occur.”

Read the report, Leading Integrity: Towards an organisational ethics, here.

Join the conversation

WBS on social media