The Institute of Business Ethics (IBE)'s Attitudes of the British Public to Business Ethics found that 52% of people now say they believe businesses behave ethically. Public opinion has always been more positive than negative since the survey began in 2003, except for last year when it dipped to 48%. Opinion is still not as high as it was in 2015, when it stood at 59%.
Tax avoidance (38%), executive pay (30%) and exploitative labour (27%) have all remained unchanged as the public’s biggest concerns about business for three consecutive years. Last year the Panama Papers drew attention to the scale of tax avoidance by some firms, containing leaked data on some 214,000 companies globally.
While the research shows a slight recovery in public perceptions, it suggested that this might only be down to business now comparing favourably to other arenas, such as Westminster and Hollywood, both of which have received negative coverage in recent months in relation to sexual harassment.
“Although these results are encouraging this may be related to the scandals that have affected other institutions in society over the course of 2017,” said Philippa Foster Back, director of IBE. “By contrast business appears more responsible in the eyes of the public. The fact that corporate tax avoidance and executive pay remain the top public concerns is an example where business is still not doing enough to address ethical issues."
Norman Pickavance, co-founder of the Centre for Organisational Renewal told HR magazine that distrust of business ultimately harms organisations commercially. “It’s clearly positive that businesses are gradually rebuilding trust,” he said. “The fact is, however, that half of the population still do not trust businesses, which is extremely damaging. It’s preventing them from being dynamic and breaking new ground, and ultimately holding them back.
“This is partially because people’s lives are becoming more difficult, and they’re not seeing how businesses can benefit society," he added. "When it comes to ethical business [organisations are] looking at compliance law, but they’re not addressing company culture.”
Foster Back highlighted the crucial role HR can play in businesses behaving ethically and in how business is perceived as a result. "HR can play a central role in the public’s view of how ethical business is," she said. "While the news may be full of stories about unethical business behaviour, the experience people have as employees can help generate more trust in business. HR professionals are key in supporting a workplace culture where ‘doing the right thing’ is encouraged."
Attitudes of the British Public to Business Ethics was completed on behalf of IBE by Ipsos Mori, using an online survey of 2,003 adults in the UK.