Workplace Ethics: What EU Employees Really Think About Speaking Up

by: NorthWhistle

Instilling workplace ethics and a ‘speak up’ culture involves encouraging employees to do the right thing and escalating problems when they aren’t addressed or resolved. In the EU, enforcement agencies have been frustrated with the scale of misconduct, even after some Member States passed strict laws. In fact, 7 out of 10 top enforcement fines paid for non-compliance since 2008 are based in European nations. Airbus (France/Netherlands) was fined $2.09 billion in 2020 and Eriksson (Sweden) was fined $1.06 billion in 2019. The whistleblower directive is an opportunity for businesses to improve workplace ethics and reduce the risk of misconduct and its negative consequences.

Why Don’t Employees Speak Up About Misconduct?

A recent survey by the European Court of Auditors found that the biggest challenges for harmonising approaches between Member Nations when it comes to ethics are the ability to promote trust and support disclosures of wrongdoing (EUPAN, 2019). In the private industry, a 2018 survey conducted by the UK Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) revealed that 43% of respondents who have been aware of misconduct in the workplace did not raise concerns about the issue. 

The two most common reasons private industry employees give for not raising concerns about wrongdoings are that they don’t believe corrective actions will be taken by management and they don’t want to jeopardise their job. The IBE survey found that there are opinion differences across age, gender, and positions within the organisation when it comes to speaking up and feeling heard. For instance, men are more likely than women to believe their organisation will discipline employees who violate ethical standards (56% vs 49%). Older employees and mid-career employees are the most likely to raise concerns about wrongdoings. Interestingly, younger employees are more than mid-career employees (34% vs 24%) likely to say that their manager rewards good results, even when they use questionable practices. 

This shows that some employees have the perception that unethical behaviour is rewarded by their company and that speaking up about it won’t make a difference or will come at a great personal cost.  Researcher Gerard Sinzdak found that 82% of whistleblowers suffer harassment, 60% lose their jobs, 17% lose their homes, and 10% attempt suicide. He recommends giving more options for reporting channels to avoid retaliation. The study found notable differences between EU Member States. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Employees in Portugal (49%) and Italy (50%) are the least likely to report incidents, while workers in the UK (67%) (the study was conducted pre-Brexit) and Switzerland (58%) are most likely to do so. 
  • In France, 46% of employees are aware of misconduct but don’t speak up because they think it’s none of their business (25%), they don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker by management (20%), they worry they’ll be putting their job in jeopardising, or they assume managers already know about the problem (17%). 
  • Less than a quarter of German employees are aware of their organisation providing advice, information, or a whistleblowing channel. 
  • In Ireland, 88% of employees believe their organisation Always/Frequently practises honesty. Even so, 44% of employees who have been aware of misconduct did not speak up about it. 
  • Spanish employees are less likely than those in other EU nations to be aware of advice or information and whistleblowing channels. The study found that 40% of employees have been aware of misconduct such as unethical treatment of people (48%), safety violations (35%), and misreporting hours (34%), but chose not to disclose it. 
  • In Italy, 46% of employees did not speak up when they became aware of misconduct even though they are more likely than other nations (44%) to be aware of internal channels for reporting misconduct confidentially, an increase from 35% since 2015. 
  • In Portugal, 85% of employees feel their organisation always or frequently practises honesty in daily operations, and yet, 49% have been aware of misconduct and decided not to speak up. The most frequent reason given is that they believe no corrective action would be taken (32%). 
  • Swiss employees (61%) are the most likely to say their organisation provides written standards for ethical business conduct and guidelines for their job, but only 36% say they have a means of reporting misconduct confidentially.

Managers Can Help Promote Workplace Ethics

Managers play an important role in promoting transparent organisations, a ‘speak-up’ culture, and ethical behaviour among employees. They are more likely than mid-level and early career employees to be aware of misconduct in the workplace (34% compared to 29% of non-managers). They are also much more likely to speak up about misconduct compared to non-managers (70% vs 46%). 

Managers are often the first to hear about employee concerns. Providing a work environment that views ethics as important and offers supportive actions when wrongdoings are disclosed can increase employees’ positive perception of their workplace environment and their company’s ability to respond to disclosures. The IBE report found that 90% of employees who reported misconduct were satisfied with the outcome of speaking up when their organisations had a supportive ethics culture. In comparison, only 15% of whistleblowers felt satisfied with the outcome when they worked for what they saw as unsupportive organisations. The support employees identified as important were making honesty a core value, increasing awareness of instances of misconduct, putting less pressure on employees to compromise their ethics, and creating a culture where employees can speak up about misconduct without fearing reprisals. Having a strong whistleblower program can help employers ensure these conditions are in place.   Researcher Nuala Walsh suggests that training, audits, and codes of conduct aren’t enough for people to report wrongdoings. Compliance-based tools should use emotion-based triggers in their communication strategy to encourage employees to take action. Walsh also recommends upgrading outdated reporting mechanisms, teaching employees how to respond to misconduct when they see it, using anonymous reporting tools to reduce the risk to whistleblowers, and ensuring managers are not reacting negatively to disclosures.