Do you have guilty feet?

But, according to a recent study on corporate social responsibility by business school Ashridge, increased seniority also brings with it increased levels of guilt.

Of the 700 or so senior managers, mainly of large companies, who took part in the survey, two thirds said they had faced ethical dilemmas in their work.

And, according to Adam Faruk, who managed the project, the more senior the managers, the more tensions they feel between their personal ethics and those of their organisation.

When it comes to ethical and moral issues, troubled minds, it seems, are more prevalent in the boardroom than among the lower ranks of middle and junior management.

Faruk says he is surprised at how many people said they experienced such dilemmas.

The issues raised were diverse and many of the respondents, protected by the cloak of anonymity, were forthright in their comments. ‘I often feel one wears two hats – conformance to corporate culture versus personal ethics,’ said one. Another said: ‘Sometimes you have to do things you don’t believe in.’

There were also a variety of dilemmas affecting managers, ranging from selecting staff for redundancy to third world labour issues and working with defence industries.

Faruk also highlights a few responses which he describes as ‘intriguing’. These include ‘addressing the impact of pricing on high/low income groups,’ and ‘responsibility for revenues versus responsibility to suppliers’. One respondent referred to ‘cultural clashes between nations’.

A consistent theme was the pressure managers suffer to provide shareholder value. According to one respondent: ‘My organisation has one mission – maximise shareholder value. Everything else they do is secondary. Environmental destruction is the result.’

Another, who described shareholder value as a ‘fetish issue’, said it forced employees to behave against their ethical principles. Faruk says: ‘Some people feel driven by the need to generate short-term returns for shareholders. This steamrollers everything else.’

He also points to findings elsewhere in his research; for example that 42% of respondents think the long-term commercial well-being of a company is often compromised by making dividend payments, and that 73% think senior managers in companies are too ready to act on short-term movements in share price.

While he agrees increasing focus on shareholder value in the modern business world means more people have been experiencing ethical dilemmas, Faruk argues the increasing focus on corporate social responsibility issues could mean less people will experience them in the future.

Ultimately, he says, talented people will just express their feelings with their feet and quit. ‘Employees do notice how companies operate because they have to operate within them. If your organisation works in a way people feel uncomfortable with, they will look elsewhere.’

He adds: ‘If companies want to win the war for talent, becoming more environmentally and socially aware will help them.’

Accountants, given their involvement in many management and financial decisions, can often find themselves on the frontline when it comes to ethical issues.

In addition to their personal views, they have the professional ethics of their institute to think about. Mandie Lavin, director, professional standards at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, says the more senior you are in an organisation, the greater your accountability.

She adds: ‘You can have all the best corporate governance and ethical guidelines, but at the end of the day you are dependent on your personal professional accountability.’

At ACCA, David York, head of auditing practice, says that because accountants are trained in ethics, they will have a heightened awareness of the issues.

But he says that in some cases, where an accountant feels either their professional or personal ethics are being compromised, he or she could have little choice but to resign, although he points to recent whistleblower legislation which could protect them in some cases.

He also says ethical issues are sometimes more difficult for accountants to deal with because of their professional duty of confidentiality.

  • Ashridge’s study is called: The new business responsibilities: a survey of management practice and abilities.

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