Mirror, mirror on the wall who’s the most unethical of them all?

There is a broadly inverse relationship between how unethical the public think an occupation is and how much those within it get paid.

The Governance Institute of Australia Ethics Index 2022 survey finds that the occupations considered more unethical than ethical are, in descending order, directors of Australian companies, mortgage brokers, fund managers, lawyers, senior executives, directors of foreign companies operating in Australia, local politicians, real estate agents, Federal politicians and State politicians.

The occupations considered most ethical are in order nurses, fire services, ambulance services, veterinarians, GPs, pharmacists, primary school teachers, childcare/pre-school carers, dentists and scientists. CSIRO scientists are among the top rated occupations along with Defence personnel.

None of this second group are considered very unethical although GPs, pharmacists, primary school teachers, child care, dentists and scientists are all considered somewhat unethical which is a staggering counterintuitive finding.

The first group – the ones considered most unethical – are generally the highest paid occupations although how local politicians get in is puzzling unless respondents think their local councillors are all on the take.

In terms of organisations State and Federal Parliament are the bottom of the unethical list with the CSIRO being considered the most ethical in the public service and government sector followed by the Defence Force, Border Force, ACCC, ASIC and APRA.

Only 9 percent of respondents think Federal Parliament is very ethical and 25% say it’s somewhat ethical.

The top 10 organisations for ethical behaviour are pathology services specialists, primary schools, medical charities such as the Cancer Council, public hospitals, childcare and pre-school centres.

The bottom ten are, in declining order, State Parliament, life insurance companies, Federal Parliament, foreign companies operating in Australia (40% either very or somewhat unethical), journalists, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, pay day lenders and TikTok.

When it comes to the business sector and occupations lawyers and real estate agents are considered the most unethical with net somewhat and very unethical scores of 35% and 46% respectively.

Cafes and farmers are rarely seen as unethical ditto retailers and manufacturing companies but energy and water companies, construction companies and telecommunications companies score highly on the unethical scale with resource companies scoring highest on that scale.

The current and future governments might find that resource companies ranking very useful if they ever got around to levying heavier (or in some cases any) taxes on resource companies. Multimillion dollar ad campaigns and Gina Rinehart shrieking on the back of a truck might be less effective than it was in the last campaign against attempts to get a better share for Australians of the proceeds of our resources.

Rolling out company Chairs, CEOs and Directors might also get little traction and as all have low very ethical scores and high scores for being very or somewhat unethical.

…and it would be wise to keep foreign companies out of any campaign as they are the mostly regarded as very or somewhat unethical.

The public is pretty clear-eyed about the levels of executive remuneration in companies too. 64% regard salaries of CEOs of $3 million a year for companies with up to 5,000 employees as very or somewhat unethical with 50% saying very unethical. For CEOs of companies with up to 15,000 employees the figure is 61%.

The best rankings for broad sectors of the economy were for the health sector, education, charities and NFPs, agriculture. Membership associations and the public service.

When employers start bemoaning that they will be ruined by the new industrial relations laws the media – which will give them much space and air time – should recognise that trade unions are considered much more ethical than government, banking finance and insurance companies, the resource sector and large corporations.

The media outlets which will provide the megaphones for this bleating are ranked dead last in the very unethical and somewhat unethical standings.

The Institute also explored attitudes to ethical behaviour in particular situations. 49% regard opposition political parties and independents blocking legislation of a party which has won government as very or somewhat unethical; and, categorising someone who has an opposing view (eg as ‘greenies’ or climate deniers) score 48% – which is considered bit less unethical than taking a sickie when not really sick.

A winning at all costs approach to sport; collection of data by social media companies; not correcting a restaurant bill when it doesn’t include an item you have ordered and already consumed; and, keeping a parcel wrongly delivered to you come dead last in the unethical behavioural rankings – in other words worst.

The research also measured what respondents believe are the elements which ensure ethical conduct. The top ranked were transparency, accountability, whistle-blower protection, highly ethical leaders, a strong legal framework and ethics education in schools.

These were followed by financial penalties; strong inquisitive media to expose unethical behaviour (if only one thinks); and ethics education in educational institutions.

Oversight by regulators weren’t regarded that highly nor were ethical standards in contracts, oversights by membership associations and designated senior executives for ethics were rated dead last.

When asked what the top ethical challenges for the next 12 months were,  major reform and overhaul of the aged care sector was nominated. This was not measured in 2021 and the COVID tragedies, rip offs and neglect in privatised aged care facilities are clearly a factor in this. Whether, in tackling this, John Howard is called out for having facilitated this with his changes to aged care policy, is another matter.

Increased local manufacturing; climate change and environmental issues; greater scrutiny and transparency of executive remuneration; reducing plastic packaging; and, getting the right balance between hazard reduction and conservation of plant and animal communities was considered important.

Monitoring and regulatory action to ensure staff are not being unfairly made redundant; improving the monitoring and reporting of sustainability across industries and companies and ensuing gender balance in senior roles are also highly rated.

The Albanese Government has apparently already had one significant impact on the Institute survey as the ethical challenge of government ministers’ ability to award government grants for projects has dropped significantly in the challenge rankings.

Ensuring gender balance in senior roles has dropped slightly in the top ethical challenge lists but why this is so is an interesting question. Perhaps the Albanese Cabinet, the Teals and the political demise of Morrison have influenced community attitudes.

But what is clear from this – and a previous blog post on the Institute findings – the media is the biggest victim in the changing rankings of who and what is considered unethical.