Professional misconduct: out into the open

31st August 2018

P7 torch istock 857290050

Related Topics

Related tags

  • Benchmarking ,
  • Employee engagement ,
  • Ethics


Deon Mushure

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

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


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

EU and UK citizens fear net-zero delivery deficit

Support for net zero remains high across the UK and the EU, but the majority of citizens don't believe that major emitters and governments will reach their climate targets in time.

16th May 2024

Read more

There is strong support for renewable energy as a source of economic growth among UK voters, particularly among those intending to switch their support for a political party.

16th May 2024

Read more

Taxing the extraction of fossil fuels in the world’s most advanced economies could raise $720bn (£575bn) by 2030 to support vulnerable countries facing climate damages, analysis has found.

2nd May 2024

Read more

The largest-ever research initiative of its kind has been launched this week to establish a benchmark for the private sector’s contribution to the UK’s 2050 net-zero target.

2nd May 2024

Read more

The Scottish government has today conceded that its goal to reduce carbon emissions by 75% by 2030 is now “out of reach” following analysis by the Climate Change Committee (CCC).

18th April 2024

Read more

While there is no silver bullet for tackling climate change and social injustice, there is one controversial solution: the abolition of the super-rich. Chris Seekings explains more

4th April 2024

Read more

Alex Veitch from the British Chambers of Commerce and IEMA’s Ben Goodwin discuss with Chris Seekings how to unlock the potential of UK businesses

4th April 2024

Read more

Five of the latest books on the environment and sustainability

3rd April 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close