Comms pros ‘not equipped’ to deal with ethical issues

A significant proportion of communicators “do not feel well equipped” to deal with ethical issues, and there is considerable uncertainty about what they can and should aim to achieve for their organisation in relation to its ethical performance.

The actions of leaders and the quality of their communication are critical factors in embedding an ethical culture.

These are key findings from the Institute of Internal Communication’s (IoIC) Ethics Survey that was released at the Ethics in Internal Communication Summit in London yesterday. You can find IoIC on Twitter @IoICNews.

The survey was completed by 132 comms pros working in both public and private sectors and took place over the summer.

It focused on the following areas:

a) The ethical organisation — respondents’ views on the ethical performance of their own organisation and key factors in creating an ethical culture

b) The role of internal communication — respondents’ views on the role of internal communication in developing an ethical culture

c) The ethical internal communicator— respondents’ views on their own level of understanding and professional development in relation to ethics, along with their personal experiences of current trends/challenges.

The most important factor

Respondents said the most important factors in creating a sustainable ethical culture are:

  1. Leaders who lead by example – 95% rating this as very important, and 5% as important (i.e. 100% of respondents)
  2. A culture of transparency, openness and honesty – 84% rating this as very important and 14% as important
  3. Clear organisational values  – 67% rating it as very important and 30% as important.

ethicsWhen asked to rate internal communication activities in terms of their importance in embedding ethical culture, leadership issues were also high on communicators’ list.

The most important activity was seen as Promoting open/two-way communication – 96% rated this as very important or important (74% and 22%).

This was followed by Helping leaders understand and fulfil their communication responsibilities at 94% (62% and 32%) and ‘Supporting leaders/managers in projecting themselves as open, honest and ethical’ at 91% (52% and 39%).

A matter of trust
The survey also revealed that gaining employee trust was proving difficult for many leaders. 34% categorised employees’ level of trust in their leaders as ‘neutral’, while another 28% said it was low (24%) or very low (4%).

Responses indicated that there could be particular challenges in relation to trust in leadership in the public sector. 60% of public sector respondents said levels were low or very low (40% and 20% respectively), compared to 21% in the private sector (20% low, 1% very low).

I’m not surprised by how low this is, there’s certainly work to be done in this area! I’ve written about the importance of trust numerous times, including this article about the Edelman Trust Barometer.

I’d be keen to know what the breakdown of the remaining 38% was in terms of high/very high re: trust in leaders. What’s your experience of trust in your organisation? Do these findings surprise you or are they as you would expect?

Respondents were given a number of factors to rate in terms of their importance in creating a sustainable ethical culture:

● 83% of respondents agreed with the statement ‘My organisation has a clear ethics policy/ code of conduct’.

● 58% of respondents thought their organisation’s culture was very ethical (21%) or ethical (37%), with a further 29% considering it to be quite ethical. 7% believed it was not very ethical.

● 82% of financial sector respondents believed ‘Emphasis in performance management on ’how you do things’ as well as ‘what you do’ was ‘very important’ ’; compared to 63% of all survey respondents and 67% of all private sector respondents.

Hat-tip to the Institute of Internal Communication for running this survey and publishing these results. I think one of the most interesting areas is the role of internal communication when it comes to ethical organisations and the role of communicators. And also one of the most worrying!

The survey revealed:

● 72% of respondents said that communication practitioners could influence their company’s ethical policy, and 76% said they could influence their organisation’s ethical performance. However, there was some degree of uncertainty around these questions with 20% saying they did not know in relation to policy, and 18% in relation to performance.

● In response to the question, ‘How much attention is given to ethics awareness and embedding ethical behaviour in internal communication programmes within your organisation?’, the most popular response was ‘Some’ (45%), followed by ‘A little’ (23%) and ‘A lot’ (19%). 12% said this was not given any attention.

The ethical internal communicator 

● 80% of respondents said that they felt they understood their ethical responsibilities as an internal communicator.

● 83% of freelancers/self-employed consultants said they had clearly thought through ethical principles that consistently guided the way they worked.

● 61% said they felt they had had sufficient guidance/training on ethics in internal communication, while 39% did not.

● 55% said they had seen an upwards trend in terms of ethical issues impacting on their communications work programme over the last three years. 41% had seen no change, while 4% had experienced a downward trend.

When asked about factors impacting on the extent to which ethical messages/topics featured in communications programmes they were working on, 17% of respondents said this was not a significant priority within their organisation/clients’ organisations at the moment. 16% said organisational leaders were not really being behind the issue, and there were also 16% of respondents who felt they were not senior enough to influence what was going on.

steveWhat does the Institute of Internal Comms think?
IoIC chief executive Steve Doswell said: ‘These findings illustrate that, while an ethics policy and code of conduct provide important foundations, some other factors are critical to achieving a sustainable ethical culture – and foremost amongst these are leaders seen to behave in an authentic fashion, who communicate effectively and encourage open, honest, two-way communication.

‘The survey also shows that a significant proportion of communicators do not feel well equipped to deal with ethical issues, and there is considerable uncertainty about what they can and should aim to achieve for their organisation in relation to its ethical performance.

‘The Ethics in Internal Communication Summit, co-hosted with the Reputation Institute – and this  survey – are the first in a series of initiatives to continue over the coming months, in which we will explore the ethical issues and challenges facing internal communicators and provide guidance on how to tackle them.”

Further details and a downloadable copy of the findings are available here in the Knowledge Bank.

I’m encouraged to see the Institute of Internal Communication’s pledge to undertake further work on ethics over the coming months.

This will include a detailed report by its Advanced Diploma graduates later in the year. I’ll be looking out for it and will share the content when I see it.

What do you make of the survey? Do you agree with the findings or have any suggestions? How do you address ethics in your organisation? Where do you turn for ethics advice and do you feel you’re not equipped when it comes to ethical issues? Would a code of conduct for IC pros be useful?

Lots of questions! As ever, you’re welcome to comment below or tweet me @AllthingsIC,


Post author: Rachel Miller

First published on All Things IC blog 13 September 2013.

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