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In difficult economic times the relationship between employees and employers is often tested. Under pressure, senior management can see itself forced to take  decisions that negatively affect the workforce, and this shifts the focus of employees’ attention to questions of trust, and confidence in their employer. According to  a recent report – Deloitte’s annual Ethics & Workplace Survey – the recession has diminished two important aspects of workplace culture: trust and ethics.

The survey reports that a third of people surveyed plan to look for a new job when the economy gets better. This research was carried out in the USA, but with the daily announcements of cuts in the UK the issues raised by this report are likely to be a salient here too.

Almost half of the respondents, (48%) say they are losing trust in their employer, and 46 percent say that a lack of transparent communication from their company’s leadership means that they are thinking of changing their job as soon as the recession is over. The report recommends that business leaders must be “mindful of the importance of both on talent management and retention strategies as well as the bottom line impact.” In plain English this means take care of your staff or lose them. It also reminds managers that losing staff (who may be replaceable) often means losing the expertise and tacit knowledge they built up during their employment (not so easy to replace).

The irony of this is that aspects of corporate behaviour that have the greatest impact on staff loyalty cost almost nothing to foster. If staff are to trust their employer, to feel that they are being treated fairly and to want to ‘go the extra mile’ (as the corporate gurus say), it takes a positive intention by their employer to create a corporate culture that puts ethical behaviour towards staff at its centre.

There are plenty of ethical organisations that have done this, but many more that  pay only lip service to it; they fail to ensure that their ethical declarations are translated into workplace behaviours at all levels.

I find that many of the companies I visit are well aware of what needs to be done and they are genuinely making change in the right direction. Sadly, others fall short, despite their declared intentions.

Creating an ethical corporate culture has to be top-down and bottom-up. It must engage staff and managers at all levels. It requires inspired and effective leadership, and a consistent effort by all over the long term. It does not require re-branding, re-structuring or re-anything costly. It is low-cost.

Find Deloitte’s 2010 Ethics & Workplace Survey.

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