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The 2023 Ethical Culture Survey: Transparency & Trust

The 2023 Ethical Culture Report offers plenty of insight on what some of the emerging issues are when it comes to what different groups of people expect when it comes to business integrity from their workplace, particularly Generation Z. So what can companies do to act on these findings and build a better ethical culture of their own? Drawing on her own experience as a Client Success Manager for Ethisphere, and having seen field-tested solutions at work, Cassidy Davis has some ideas.


The Ethical Culture Survey yielded some surprising data on how much bullying has grown as a cause for missing a reported misconduct, rising by 13 percent over the course of the pandemic, far more than any other form of misconduct in the survey. How can companies take action to address this?

I was surprised by that finding on bullying as well. What organizations can do—and what I’ve seen organizations do when it comes to bullying is not that dissimilar from what works with other issues, as well—is to promote speaking up. I have seen that done most effectively specifically through how companies communicate the reporting process to their employees. What does that look like? How do you use it? What is the hotline? What is the reporting portal? Who can you go to? What happens during the process? How transparent is the process? Do you highlight the fact that there are many different outcomes of an investigation?

As with most reasons for reporting, speaking up allows for a solution. If an issue is going to change, someone has to say something, and from what I have seen, that is especially true of bullying, where speaking up can be especially difficult. So it’s really important to encourage employees to speak up. That is the number one thing to spoke to focus on.

The Ethical Culture report noted that time will tell what the actual root cause of the bullying trend is that we noticed. It could be a lot of things. It could be the stress of the pandemic, Gen Z being especially sensitive to bullying as something that is unacceptable, managers needing more training, and so on. But giving the employees the keys to say something and what managing what happens after that process begins are fundamental to success.


Another surprising finding from the report is that when it explored how different age cohorts have noticeably different levels of awareness around what tools are available for them to report misconduct, and how to take advantage of those tools and speak up. The younger the age cohort, the lower the general level of awareness. One would imagine that everyone knows what these tools are, but the data shows that clearly, that’s not the case. How important is it for companies to really make a special effort to ensure that employees know what the full range of speak up tools and options and protections are?

It’s everything, I would say. Companies should focus on the presence of the ethics and compliance function. How are you communicating? How well do you understand your employees’ basic psyche? Are you sending out newsletters? Do you have posters? How are you conducting ethics week? Do you even have ethics week?

The more they’re aware of your function, the more you’re able to get the word out about the different avenues for reporting. Yes, you may have your annual training, and yes, there may be that poster in the cafeteria or the lunchroom. But it needs to be a more consistent communication. There needs to be a certain rhythm or cadence, if you will. Reaching out once a year is not enough, and something static like a poster is good, but that will not be enough, either. It needs to be more, and it needs to be consistent.

Maybe you do a quarterly newsletter and remind people of those avenues. Maybe you do a campaign in partnership with your people managers to remind employees of how they can speak up, and what their protections are. You could even gamify this around where how people find the hotline or displaying how many different ways there are to report. There are lots different options to explore, but I would say that the most important thing is to focus on promoting the presence of the function. That’s what I’m seeing.


In the culture survey that is the basis for this report, we see a lot of data that over the course of the pandemic, Generation Z employees seemed especially hesitant to speak up against misconduct. That looks like a particularly important development, so how might organizations best respond to that?

The data show that Gen Z does not always trust an organization’s anti-retaliation policy, whether that’s because they don’t know about it, or because they’re so new to the workforce that they don’t trust it.

This actually sent me back to the Edelman report from December 2021, which is called The Power of Gen Z. And what they found is that Gen Z, also called “the sensible generation,” has a huge concern for safety, whether that’s physically, mentally, financially, socially. So, fast forward to our report, it’s been really neat to see our data reflect that very thing.

It’s clear that these young people coming into the workforce are extremely concerned about their safety. They want to keep their job. Those who started during the pandemic, are coming into the workforce for the first time, literally scared for their own health when there has never been a more uncertain time than in these past few years. And you know, these bright-eyed young people, they don’t know what’s going on, they just want to keep their job.

So with that, another finding that the Edelman report talked about is that Gen Z can sniff out manipulation a mile away, they don’t even bother with a show. They want to know the facts. Facts, they trust. So what I see the most successful companies doing is focusing on transparency. If you want to gain Gen Z’s trust and make them feel safe, they need to know what’s going on. For example, when we help a client with a culture assessment here at Ethisphere, I get to speak with our clients about what they did after the survey. The companies with the strongest cultures are the ones that show the data and say, “Hey, everyone, here are our results. Here is where we think we are excelling. Here are the areas where we think we are struggling.” And where they are struggling, they make a point about saying what they are going to do about it. And then, they follow through. That is the only way you are going to gain Gen Z’s trust, because, you can say as much as you want, but until they see it in action, they will not trust you. That is why they probably don’t trust your anti-retaliation policy, or why they might say they want to speak up about misconduct, but they don’t actually do it when they see it, because they are not yet sure what is really going on around them. So transparency, in any way possible, is going to help gain the Gen Z’s trust. Show transparency, and you’ll see them speaking up more.

There is something else to consider, too, when it comes to Generation Z. This generation is so passionate about justice and doing the right thing. They have a mentality of “if I protect you, then that also protects me.” I believe that time will tell how Gen Z’s reporting behavior changes after the pandemic. But the more transparent you are, the more Gen Z is going to really feel safe to speak up. Once that happens, I think we will see the reporting numbers for that particular generation group start to grow.


It is going to be really interesting to see how much of an impact Gen Z has on broader cultural expectations at the workplace, because they are just starting to show up as a cohort. Their influence will only grow in the years to come. It seems like the generation findings of this report are a kind of early indicator that organizations need to get their culture right by Gen Z, because Gen Z is going to expect it, and it’s going to really shape things in the years to come.

Absolutely. And that is where you attract talent as well. These young people are so smart, so bright, so wise, and the best of them are going to go to the best companies with strong cultures that care about how people are treated. You already are seeing this with things like brand loyalty; as consumers, Generation Z are already known for choosing brands that they feel are ethical. So it follows that they are going to choose companies to work for that are also ethical.


One of the most attention-grabbing sections of the Culture Report is the third section, which is about how managers still matter. We have seen in this survey, that the role of managers as an immediate source of support is still very, very important to employees across the board. How can companies support their managers as pillars of corporate culture, especially during times when cultures are really put to the test as they were during the pandemic?

I love this question. According to our data, managers are the highest influence on an ethical culture. I see organizations supporting their managers by making it easy to talk about ethics.

I have the great pleasure of working with our culture content subscribers. One of the resources that we offer to them is a manager’s toolkit. This is a wonderful tool for managers to take into consideration when they are having those weekly, monthly, quarterly discussions with their direct reports. It helps them keep in mind how to talk to their employees and understand the tone that they need to present to get through to them.

What I see companies doing is giving their managers different options and different modalities for communicating topics. Humor is one worth considering. Humor goes such a long way with learning, because science shows that we retain more information when there’s humor around or within a conversation. Or, maybe it’s a short and sweet video to communicate something specifically and quickly and get some energy behind it. Maybe it’s scenario learning. Maybe it’s, talking through an issue hypothetically, tapping into how we all learn through storytelling.

It could be through gamification, where you have a friendly competition around a particular topic that can create the room for a team celebration. I had a great opportunity recently to speak with an organization about how they gamified their ethics week. It was really impressive—they rolled out a different topic every day during that week, and every day, they had quizzes on that topic. The business unit with the most respondents got a prize. It was a really fun way to, to incorporate that. So, if your managers are able to give your managers a bit of hand-holding, then that’s the quickest and most effective way to help you help them. A little hand holding goes a long way. It puts them at ease.


The 2023 Ethical Culture Report— Lessons from the Pandemic: Accountability Reigns and Gen Z Refrains can be downloaded here. This interview originally appeared in video form as an episode of the Ethicast. To watch that episode, please click here.

This article is from the Winter 2023 issue of Ethisphere Magazine. To download a full PDF of the issue, click here.

To read the first article in this three-part series, click here. To read the second article in this three-part series, click here.

About the Expert
Cassidy Davis is the Client Success Manager for Ethisphere’s Business Ethics Leadership Alliance (BELA) and Data & Services teams. She has the pleasure of serving as a key client contact by providing support throughout the lifecycle of services and ensuring products are optimally adopted and deployed. Prior to joining Ethisphere in 2021 as a BELA Account Representative, Cassidy spent 15 years in the hospitality industry. Her last role was at The Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park with their legendary Guest Relations team. She played a key role in maintaining the property’s Forbes Five- Star status and was a nominee for the J. Willard Marriott Award of Excellence.

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