Poll: Comms pros ‘not equipped’ to deal with ethical issues

A survey by the Institute of Internal Communication found that leading by example was the best way to instill ethics in an organization’s culture—along with lots of other interesting findings.

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 organization with regard to its ethical performance.

The actions of leaders and the quality of their communication are crucial 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 this week. 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 organization—respondents’ views on the ethical performance of their own organization 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.

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

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

When 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 percent rated this as very important or important (74 percent and 22 percent).

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

A matter of trust

The survey also revealed that gaining employee trust was proving difficult for many leaders. Thirty-four percent categorized employees’ level of trust in their leaders as “neutral,” while another 28 percent said it was low (24 percent) or very low (4 percent).

Responses indicated that there could be particular challenges in relation to trust in leadership in the public sector. Sixty percent of public sector respondents said levels were low or very low (40 percent and 20 percent respectively), compared with 21 percent in the private sector (20 percent low, 1 percent 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 the breakdown of the remaining 38 percent in terms of high/very high, regarding trust in leaders. What’s your experience of trust in your organization? 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 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: “My organization has a clear ethics policy/code of conduct.”

● 58 percent of respondents thought their organization’s culture was very ethical (21 percent) or ethical (37 percent), with another 29 percent considering it to be quite ethical. Seven percent believed it was not very ethical.

● 82 percent of financial sector respondents believed “Emphasis in performance management on “how you do things” as well as “what you do” was “very important,” compared with 63 percent of all survey respondents and 67 percent of all private sector respondents.

One of the most interesting areas is the role of internal communication when it comes to ethical organizations and the role of communicators-and one of the most worrisome.

The survey revealed:

  • 72 percent of respondents said communication practitioners could influence their company’s ethical policy, and 76 percent said they could influence their organization’s ethical performance. However, there was some degree of uncertainty around these questions with 20 percent saying they did not know in relation to policy, and 18 percent in relation to performance.
  • In response to the question, “How much attention is given to ethics awareness and embedding ethical behavior in internal communication programs within your organization?” the most popular response was “Some” (45 percent), followed by “A little” (23 percent) and “A lot” (19 percent). Twelve percent said this was not given any attention.

The ethical internal communicator

  • 80 percent of respondents said they felt they understood their ethical responsibilities as an internal communicator.
  • 83 percent of freelancers/self-employed consultants said they had clearly thought through ethical principles that consistently guided the way they worked.
  • 61 percent said they felt they had had sufficient guidance/training on ethics in internal communication, while 39 percent did not.
  • 55 percent said they had seen an upwards trend in terms of ethical issues impacting on their communications work program over the last three years. Forty-one percent had seen no change, while 4 percent had experienced a downward trend.

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

What 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 organization 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.”

A downloadable copy of the findings are available here in the Knowledge Bank.

What do you make of the survey? Do you agree with the findings or have any suggestions? How do you address ethics in your organization? 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? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section.

A version of this article first appeared on All Things IC.


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