Ideally, an ethical culture should be a shared value within an organisation, with all employees, regardless of their job level, having a similar view of whether the culture supports or hinders ethical behaviour. However, can differences in the perception of ethical culture exist between non-managerial employees and management?
Our research reveals that there is indeed a disparity in the perception of ethical culture maturity among different job levels, particularly in private organisations. The perception of ethical culture maturity significantly increases from non-managerial employees to middle management and then to senior management. In other words, as one climbs the corporate ladder, the perception of ethical culture tends to become more positive. Non-managerial employees, positioned at the lowest end of the corporate ladder, often hold a far more negative perception of their organisations’ ethical culture maturity.
Understanding these differing perceptions is crucial for enhancing the ethical culture. Several key points are highlighted below:
- Exposure to ethics risks: Non-managerial employees often have a more direct and immediate experience of day-to-day ethical or unethical behaviour, which may differ from the perspective of management. Management typically has a broader view of the organisation’s ethical culture, given their oversight responsibilities. However, this could mean that only ethical issues brought to their attention are usually perceived.
- Power dynamics: Reporting unethical issues requires that non-managerial employees know where and how to report them, as well as feeling safe in doing so. If non-managerial employees do not witness visible consequences for unethical behaviour, they may become cynical and disheartened. Additionally, non-managerial employees may feel that they need to hide observed unethical conduct from their managers for fear of reprisals.
- Accountability and transparency: Non-managerial employees may have limited access to information about the organisation’s decision-making processes, especially concerning complex ethical issues. Management often addresses ethical challenges behind closed doors, which may or may not be communicated to non-managerial employees. The lack of communication can lead employees to feel sceptical and perceive a lack of emphasis on ethics within the organisation.
- Different working contexts: Non-managerial employees often do not enjoy the same perks, rewards, and comfortable work environments as senior executives and middle managers in the organisation. Consequently, their perspective differs drastically based on job-role context alone.
Perceptions of ethical culture do indeed differ between non-managerial employees and management due to variations in exposure to ethical risks, power dynamics, differences in accountability and transparency, and working contexts. However, organisations can bridge this gap by fostering open communication, providing training and education, leading by example, involving employees in decision-making, and ensuring whistleblower protection. Additionally, engaging in anonymised ethics risk surveys or perception surveys and ensuring good stakeholder interaction with non-managerial employees can create a more realistic perspective about the maturity of the ethical culture and reduce the disconnect between these job levels.