Ethical employees - a growing force

Dec 27 2002 by Brian Amble Print This Article

A new report on the ethical attitudes of employees reveals that they are increasingly behaving like consumers when choosing to join or stay with an employer.

While not yet mainstream in their importance, employee concerns over the social performance of organisations is growing. Some 10 per cent of the workforce, particularly new entrants to the labour market, are now rating corporate social responsibility issues as ‘very important’ when deciding who to work for.

“The ethical employee”, a survey of 1050 people by the Work Foundation and Future Foundation found that job security and long-term prospects remain the most important factor in choosing an employer, rating as the top consideration for more than 60 per cent of those surveyed. But nearly one in six respondents (16 per cent) rated an organisation’s attitude towards CSR as the first or second most important factor they look for.

According to the report’s analysis, 'Ethical Enthusiasts' who place altruistic concerns above all others in choosing a job now make up 10 per cent of the working population. A further 10 per cent rate other issues that fall under the umbrella of good corporate citizenship like flexible hours, good training and employee consultation as being important. There is also evidence that staff are becoming more critical of their employer’s ethical activity.

The single largest group of workers - 29 per cent -- rate ‘instrumental’ factors like salary and holidays as being the most important while also paying some attention to an employer’s flexible working and work-life balance policies.

Those who are not influenced at all by CSR issues and who rate only salary and remuneration as being important account for a further 24 per cent of the workforce.

Perhaps the most significant finding is that over half of the more ethical employees (53 per cent) who currently rate their current employer as below par on its contribution to the wider community say they are fairly, very or extremely likely to be on the move over the next 12 months unless their employer changes its attitude. Even amongst the less ethically sensitive, one third also expressed a similar desire to move on if their employers have a poor reputation.

As the report points out: “These figures reinforce the importance of a company’s approach to corporate social responsibility in terms of employee loyalty for all workers, while at the same time emphasising its critical importance to certain ethically oriented segments. But how many employers monitor, or even have any idea, how many of their staff (and who) are concerned in this way?”

“Most employers only find out about their employees’ concerns after they have resigned” said Stephen Bevan, deputy director of research at The Work Foundation. “And in most cases they assume that money is the issue. In fact, only around 10 per cent of employees leave because they are unhappy with their pay packet.”

A positive employer ‘brand’ can be a way of differentiating one organisation from another and creating a strong, distinctive and attractive identity with which current or potential employees can identify. For some employees, this identification can be focused on how well an employer is felt to treat and pay its staff. For others, it can be about the need for a deeper congruence between the values of the individual and those projected by the organisation.

The report identifies four factors as lying behind this increase in CSR awareness. Growing affluence allows people the ‘luxury’ of being concerned about wider issues, while declining deference to traditional institutions - and companies in particular - has increased demands and expectations on organisations as suppliers of goods and services and as employers. Meanwhile globalisation and the impact of the internet means that news travels faster and can be managed and exploited by small campaigning groups and even individuals on a one-to-one basis.

It seems clear that the ability of an organisation to attract people will increasingly depend on its stance on ethics and corporate citizenship. The ‘pay and rations’ model of constructing an attractive employment package is therefore rapidly becoming too simplistic and is not speaking to the needs of a more sophisticated workforce. As the workforce behaves more like consumers, employers will need to change their ‘offer’ and then deliver upon it. Failure to ‘live the message’ will result in increased labour turnover as employees realise that the initial offer was shallow.

But, unsurprisingly, perceptions about the work itself, and importantly, the products, services and ‘brands’ of the organisation are critical too. Those employers who can combine all three are likely to be the winners in recruiting and retaining staff in the future.