Just over half (57%) of the public (British adults aged 18 to 65) believe the nation's businesses behave ethically, according to research from the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE).
This is down from 62% last year and up from 47% in 2003 when the survey was first launched.
Younger people (aged 18 to 34) showed the most negative change in opinion of all the age groups surveyed. Thirty-three per cent now think businesses are behaving unethically, compared with 25% last year.
However the older age groups showed greater distrust for business overall, with 34% of those aged 35 to 54 and the same proportion (34%) of over-55s feeling that businesses behaved unethically. There was a less pronounced shift in perception among these age groups as in 2018 these figures stood at 31% and 35% respectively.
The top three issues concerning the public have remained the same in 2019 as the previous year: tax avoidance (33%, same result as last year); executive pay (29%, up five percentage points on 2018); and environmental responsibility (28%, up four percentage points on last year).
Philippa Foster Back, director of the IBE, said the research highlighted that businesses aren't going far enough in tackling ethical concerns.
“Business appears to be increasingly proactive in addressing certain issues of public concern, such as discrimination in the workplace and openness of information," she said.
"However, the fact that corporate tax avoidance, executive pay and environmental responsibility remain top of the list – and the latter two at increased proportions – indicates that business is not doing nearly enough to address the ethical issues that the public are most concerned about.”
Patrick Wright, head of Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, said that in the wake of business scandals HR leaders have a bigger role to play in monitoring the culture of the organisation in terms of its ethical status.
“We know that there has been increasing demand on organisations to capture data around ethical issues but there is a risk that this could be an easy approach,” he told HR magazine.
“But monitoring alone won’t suffice. HR executives must either take on the mantle of ethics champion or ensure that some other capable person in the organisation does. Such a champion will need to be highly experienced and respected, having enough organisational clout to make a difference."
2,000 British adults aged 18 to 65 were surveyed by Ipsos Mori on behalf of the IBE.