How far should a business go in its ethical approach to protect employees?

Richard Thaler gets ready for an interview with University of Chicago videographer Derek Henkle after winning the Nobel prize in economics.

LAST week a concerning statistic for the business community in the UK and Ireland emerged which didn't directly relate to economic performance, employment, Brexit, skills availability or any other pressing issue.

What did emerge, however, is something that will significantly impact companies' economic performance in the longer term if it is not addressed - and it is the damning statistic that 50 per cent of workers in the UK and Ireland do not believe their employer is committed to ethical behaviour.

This emerged within a new report which the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) conducted to coincide with world ethics day last Wednesday.

Of even greater concern is the fact that a quarter of people reported they had been ‘put under pressure' to act unethically in the workplace with nearly half saying they would turn a blind eye to the ethical misconduct of others.

This is a damning indictment of the corporate environment ten years after the financial crisis which saw unethical behaviour bring financial institutions to the brink, with near economic collapse lumbering misery on people's lives.

It was John Knoll, the visual effects expert on the Star Wars movies and the original creator of Photoshop, which he sold to Adobe in 1989, who said ‘any tool can be used for good or bad. It's really the ethics of the artist using it'.

Those ethics relate to a business as a complete entity and the individuals working within it, after all a team is only as good as the sum of its parts. Ethical culture, however, must be set, implemented and reviewed by senior management on a regular basis. By its very nature it reflects the standards and expectation of behaviour within wider society and this is constantly evolving within a disruptive social and working environment.

There has always been a strong debate about the correlation between ethics and reputation. Back in 2015 Ryanair came bottom of a PR Week survey of major companies and brands that the UK public considered to be ethical and responsible. Robin Kiely, its head of communications, stated that ethics shouldn't be confused with reputation, with an additional 14 people being seated on every Ryanair plane in that given year.

But that's the thing with poor ethics. If left long enough, it has a tendency to bite you in the reputational backside. While discussing the Ryanair debacle at the weekend with two knowledge accountants, they claimed that the reputational damage won't matter a jot in the long term with people once again voting to sit on their seats. That may be the case. But poor ethics, as well as poor management and bad judgement, has damaged its reputation and hit its bottom line. No accountant would deny that.

In our industry the respected Richard Edelman called for the PR industry to adopt a new set of ethics principles superseding those of trade associations in the wake of the collapse of Bell Pottinger.

If ever there was an example of a company paying the ultimate reputational price for extremely poor ethical decisions this is it with the company's ill-fated decision to engage in the so called ‘economic emancipation campaign' which created fake news for its South African client.

I welcome the call for a new code of ethics within the PR industry and it is something that should be reviewed across all sectors. What the ACCA report highlights is that we must look at creating environments that help promote a positive approach to the development of ethics within our workplaces.

Setting the right culture and maintaining a responsible code of ethics helps businesses attract and keep investors, employees and customers alike but more importantly it protects them, and it is the right thing to do.

New technological innovation brings new risks and cyber-security attacks on organisations including the NHS, Equifax and Deloitte are another example of how business must be alert to new challenges and ensure it has procedures in place to review and assess its ethical standards and processes.

A company that sets out strong ethical principles, placing its employees at the core of the business are often the ones that thrive and flourish. Fifty years ago, a fledgling construction company in Co Tyrone was established from small beginnings but with those very principles at its core.

This year, as it celebrates the key milestone of a half century in business with a passionate workforce and committed and loyal clients, McAleer & Rushe's infrastructural footprint can be found in cities throughout the UK and Ireland.

Employees must, of course, be at the heart of what constitutes good ethical practice and procedure. But how far do you go? Professor Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize in Economics this month for his work on behavioural economics, or what is also known as the nudge theory, and it potentially brings ethics into a new arena.

The prize was awarded to Thaler of the University of Chicago for research showing how people's choices on economic matters, whether on savings or game shows like "Deal or No Deal", are not always rational.

He addressed the fact that people often made illogical choices about their future and his approach nudges people to make the right economic choice for them and their families. A good example of this is the changing of the national pension scheme into one that workers had to opt out of rather than opting in with success rates dramatically improving.

Thaler's theory throws up a very interesting debate about just how far a business should or could go with regards its ethical approach to protect, support and indeed ‘nudge' its employees in a certain direction.

That's a debate for the future. What the business community needs now is leadership to ensure the next report on ethics makes for much better reading.

:: Claire Aiken is managing director of public relations and public affairs company Aiken

:: Next week: Brendan Mulgrew

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