Professional misconduct: out into the open

As cases of poor conduct at work become headline news, employees have shown that they are more willing to speak up. Catherine Early reports.

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What do a Hollywood director, a group of aid workers and a selection of MPs have in common? Not much on the face of it, but there cannot be many people unable to answer the question, given the media furore surrounding cases of sexual misconduct in these sectors.

“It does feel like not a month goes by without another high-profile case,” says Claire Kirk, IEMA’s head of member competence and capability. “These things have been happening for quite a long time, but haven’t had the coverage and profile they’ve had recently.”

While sexual misconduct cases dominate the coverage, various shades of misbehaviour have increasingly come to light in other sectors. The 2008 financial crisis raised questions over the ethics of the banking industry and led to the creation of new qualifications for bankers by the Chartered Bankers’ Institute, notes Philippa Foster Back, director of the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE). 

The law, medicine and media sectors have also all been taken to task for unethical behaviour and poor practice. Major sporting events have been marred by allegations of cheating through the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The negative publicity generated by such cases can have serious consequences for the wider organisation.In the case of Oxfam, the misconduct of staff who used sex workers during the Haiti earthquake relief mission in 2010, compounded by the misconduct of those covering it up, has meant that the charity will have to reduce the number of its poverty-relief programmes, following a fall in donations from the public. 


Under pressure

Rising media coverage could reflect either an increase in cases themselves, or an increase in people bringing them to light. Results of a pan-European survey published by the IBE in July revealed that one-in-six employees had felt pressure to compromise their organisation’s ethical standards, and that the number of employees experiencing this pressure has risen in all of the countries for which historical data was available.  

“Employees are under more stress than ever, and this is increasing the pressure to cut ethical corners,” says Foster Back. “The figures should be seen as a warning sign to organisations that they need to be supportive of their employees when it comes to ethical decisions.”   

More positively, the rising awareness of bad behaviour is prompting more people to report it, the survey found. Nearly one in three employees (30%) reported being aware of legal or ethical misconduct during the past year at work. People being treated inappropriately or unethically was the most frequent type mentioned (46%), followed by misreporting hours worked (35%) and safety violations (30%). More than half (54%) of employees who were aware of misconduct spoke up – an improvement on 2015. 


Nowhere to hide

“Because there is so much more publicity around it, people are feeling less reticent to call out bad behaviour, whether they go through social media or to a professional body,” says Foster Back.

“If people are behaving badly, there’s nowhere to hide any more.”

The IBE hopes that speaking up is starting to become ‘business as usual’. The whistleblowing charity Public Concern at Work (PCAW) has seen a huge rise in people seeking advice. In February, when the Oxfam scandal came to light, calls to its helpline from charity workers surged by 44%. “When we see rises like this, it can be indicative of people not being clear about where to go for advice within that sector,” says Francesca West, PCAW’s chief executive. “We saw a peak in calls from NHS staff after the Mid-Staffs scandal [where poor care resulted in hundreds of patient deaths]. There was a loss of trust in the regulator because it was seen as not having done its job.”

The charity has launched a benchmarking tool, which will give organisations an in-depth report that indicates how they have performed against similar organisations. It will identify strengths and weaknesses, along with recommendations on how to improve, which can be used when reporting to the board or regulatory body. 


Setting an example

The environment and sustainability profession is yet to experience a major scandal – but commentators agree that it is important for professionals in this sector to set an example. 

“I often describe our members as the conscience of an organisation,” says Kirk. “Professional conduct is something we should be hot on – it’s important for us, given what we represent.”


Image Credit | iStock


Catherine Early was deputy editor of the environmentalist from September 2014 to June 2017. She has covered energy and environmental issues for over 13 years, including for the ENDS Report, Planning magazine, Windpower Monthly, Business Voice, Climate Change Wealth, Fresh Produce Journal, Environment Business and Real Power magazines. She has also written for the Guardian and was a finalist in the 2009 Guardian international development journalism award.

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