The rapid shift to remote working has presented employers with new workplace ethical dilemmas.
When author Sean O’Meara began researching his recent book Remote workplace culture, he quickly noticed that virtual work wasn’t working for everyone. ‘From people feeling embarrassed seeing the massive houses of their bosses [while they were squashed into a one-bedroom flat], to women feeling like they had to “present” themselves more [their face constantly under scrutiny], employees I spoke to were increasingly uneasy.
‘People were also reporting changing command and control dynamics – of those with the power to call online meetings intimidating others to accept them. They told me they were witnessing passive aggressive behaviours that wouldn’t be so acceptable in-person.’
The changes Sean says workers were observing loosely fall under the rubric of workplace ethics – a hard-to-pin-down concept that is partly code of conduct, but also covers behaviour and integrity and straddles HR, with brand and reputation elements too.
‘IOSH advocates creating safe systems of work in a manner that is reflective of good ethical practice,’ says Simon Butt‑Bethlendy, IOSH brand and reputation manager.
‘IOSH’s own values reflect the important shared attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that everyone working at IOSH is expected to demonstrate. Equally, the IOSH Code of Conduct provides a strong ethical framework for all our members.’
Member resources: New Ethical Practice in OSH e-learning and assessment from IOSH
The IOSH Code of Conduct already requires members to ‘respect the rights and privacy of other people and organisations,’ and have ‘due regard for the effect their professional activities may have on others.’ It aligns members to the shared IOSH vision of a world of work that is safe, healthy and sustainable and provides an ethical foundation for members working towards this vision. But what does this mean in practice?
This autumn, IOSH launches a new e-learning and assessment resource for all members on ethical practice in OSH. It will provide up-to-date, relevant content and learning opportunities exploring the ethical considerations that affect organisations, enabling OSH professionals to demonstrate good ethical decision-making and behaviour. It will count towards CPD and will be integrated into a new and enhanced IOSH Blueprint platform.
Across three sections – Ethics and me, Ethics and organisations, and Ethics and public perceptions – IOSH Ethical Practice in OSH explains key concepts, describes influences and issues, analyses responsibilities, discusses relevant frameworks and reporting approaches for ethical practice, and explains how IOSH supports development of best practice related to OSH decisions and actions.
Look out for more information soon on your professional journey programme and how to access this e-learning.
New ethical risks
In theory, good workplace ethics should be universal and agnostic about where or how work is done. Good behaviour is, after all, good behaviour. But it is increasingly being argued by psychologists that virtual working presents a new set of ethical risks.
‘I would question the assumption that people work ethically anyway,’ says Simon Cassin CMIOSH, director at health, safety and wellbeing company Ouch Training. ‘This is because we know bullying takes place, and we know people give advice they are not competent to give, and abuses of power happen.
‘But what’s clear is that working remotely almost certainly introduces new opportunities for unethical behaviours to occur.
‘Taking things to its extreme, everything is an ethical question – but new ethical questions in a remote setting include issues around privacy, confidentiality, fragmentation and foreseeable clashes between personal and professional integrity.’
He adds: ‘These issues are not just created by employers. We all need to consider the implications of how we interact with our colleagues and clients.
‘Important ethical questions involving remote working include: whether people should demand people be on-screen or voice only – and whether this creates barriers – and whether we do things that are socially and professionally acceptable, such as privately texting someone while supposedly on a video call.’
These may not sound like big issues – but data from the latest State of ethics and compliance in the workplace survey suggests that, globally at least, there was an increase of a third in instances of observed misconduct in 2020 compared with 2019 – the year online working took off. These included reports of more favouritism (often referred to as proximity bias), management lying to employees and conflicts of interest.
Some 79% of US workers and 61% of global employees saw increased retaliatory behaviour, while in the UK 23% had observed misconduct in the last 12 months, while 26% said they felt under more pressure
to compromise standards (Ethics and Compliance Initiative, 2021).
This latter finding has clear health and safety implications. ‘There’s a famous thought experiment, called the “trolley problem”, where people are asked to make ethical decisions about a runaway trolley [the US name for a train],’ says Simon Cassin.
‘The train is on course to kill, say, five people, but people can choose whether to pull a lever to divert it – still causing death, but just one person dies.
‘What it illustrates is responsibility, and whether the runaway train (not the person being asked to intervene’s responsibility) becomes their responsibility when asked to make a choice. In other words, they become responsible for killing one person if they act, when they weren’t responsible for killing five if they didn’t.’
He explains: ‘Where it’s relevant here is that when we are “distant” from our decisions – which remote working tends to make us – we run the risk of our sense of responsibility and connection to others changing. Physical remoteness increases the remoteness of our actions.’
remote bias: New ways of working: the ethical questions
Joanna Rawbone, founder of Flourishing Introverts: ‘Of all the ethical issues that may present themselves during remote working, proximity bias is one that managers and leaders need to be more aware of. Favouring those who are front of mind and physically in the office disadvantages those who prefer remote working. Many introverts thrive as remote workers as the interruptions of an open-plan office make focusing to do their best work difficult.’
Jenny Ovens, people and operations director, Blue Array: ‘To be an ethical hybrid/remote employer you will have to address and think of ways to overcome human psychological traits that show people trust people more if they meet them in person. People tend to trust people they meet face to face as they build relationships with them quicker. At least building that increased awareness of these issues is a first step to challenging the issues to treat fairly people who are in remote locations.’
To those who argue this is too high-level a view of ethics and that, over time, people will eventually muddle through and iron out teething troubles, Sean is resolute: ‘This stuff matters,’ he says. ‘The practices we start to adopt now will be hard to undo, so it’s vital we start to establish standards and norms about what is ethical behaviour working remotely.’
It’s certainly a matter IOSH agrees with. ‘Just because this is a new, and largely unresearched area, it doesn’t mean we should see ethical thinking get left behind,’ argues Iván Williams Jiménez, IOSH policy development manager. ‘Upskilling of managers is necessary, and it’s an area we are starting to put more thinking into education around. We’re noticing more people starting to communicate in online chatrooms, which is a potential new area of risk.’
According to Dr Laura Bradshaw, IOSH research programme lead (technology), there is a need for HR and OSH departments to rewrite and formalise their ethical working practice guidelines. ‘There may need to be a new code of conduct written for how online meetings differ – to take into account how the workplace has recently evolved,’ she says. ‘As a body, we’re keeping this topic on our radar.’
What makes the topic all the more urgent is the dilemma remote working creates around data usage. Virtual meetings can be recorded and stored, creating ethical questions around whether data is used for purposes such as assessing people’s contribution to meetings, knowledge of topics, or how job performance could be monitored.
‘People should, at the very least, be aware they are being recorded and give their permission,’ says Laura.
‘Organisations also need to ensure data is encrypted.’ So-called ‘Zoom-Bombing’ – where meetings can be accessed by those not intended to be in the call (risking sensitive information spreading more widely than intended), is also a new major problem.
Professional bodies in other sectors have been incorporating ethics support for their members into policies and practice for a number of years. For instance, since 2015 the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) has run an annual ethics month full of events and resources for members, specifically covering how its members communicate internally and externally in an ethical and transparent way.
Rachel Roberts, president of the CIPR, says: ‘I regard ethical communications practice as reflecting reality, not a manufactured story. Remote working can create a virtual reality where it’s easy to misrepresent the lived face-to-face experience.
‘It can also put additional barriers in the way to reduce relationships and the trust between people.’ She adds: ‘Remote working can reduce the ethical safety net that culturally gets generated when people work visibly alongside each other, and there is a risk this can divert people from always coming from a place of truth if they feel under pressure to perform.’
So integral is ethics to professional practice it forms part of the CIPR’s annual continuing professional development (CPD) requirement. Practitioners must be aware of its ethical code of conduct (complete with knowledge about what is a correct complaints procedures), and an examination of ethics is a pillar of assessing candidates for Chartered PR status.
‘I have benefited personally and professionally from this increased focus on ethics as a Chartered PR practitioner,’ says Simon Butt‑Bethlendy at IOSH. ‘Recently, the CIPR launched initiatives around fact-checking, judging the authority of data, and reflective ethical practice, and it’s mandatory for members to log at least two pieces of CPD from these and other ethics resources. This informs and helps govern the work I do and it’s useful to benchmark against excellent developments in this area at IOSH.’
Laura Bradshaw adds: ‘Training and development, virtual training, online learning – these are all areas where people will need an enhanced understanding of their ethical behaviour. It’s all remote work that needs thinking about.’
Remote working can reduce the ethical safety net that culturally gets generated when people work visibly alongside each other, and there is a risk this can divert people from always coming from a place of truth
It seems employers are waking up to the issue. ‘I’m working with a client which is in the process of completely overhauling its approach to H&S, and very closely attached to this is looking at their purpose, values and how staff live those values,’ says Simon Cassin.
‘What this organisation is confronting is that what one person sees as ethical, the other may not. What I hope we’ll see is that a company’s code of ethics becomes the foundation and principles which inform and guide all work-related decisions and actions. By doing this we can create a method of work that’s supported by a consistent set of principles and values.’
Bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) say they’ll also support organisations that want to access the tools and research that it is developing around virtual working and trust.
Rachel Suff, CIPD employee relations adviser, says: ‘Ethics is also about establishing respect, and trust. It’s when these things break down that things get hard. Ethics has always been an issue
– but what I think is happening is that, with remote work, it’s affecting more people now, and in slightly newer ways. It’s around employers consciously creating the right sort of culture.’
Whether OSH professionals have considered ethical behaviour on a day-to-day basis much before, the likelihood is that they’ll be doing it more in the future.
‘If anything, the pandemic has given us an opportunity to reset and think about this more,’ says Simon Cassin. ‘Typically, people talk about ethics, but don’t really understand it.’
Ethics and Compliance Initiative. (2021) The state of ethics & compliance in the workplace: a look at global trends. (accessed 4 August 2022).
HR News. (2022). Virtual events are here to stay, as two-thirds of businesses prefer ‘dialling-in’ to an event instead of attending in-person. (accessed 4 August 2022).
Statista. (2021) Zoom Video Communications daily meeting participants worldwide from 2019 to 2020.(accessed 4 August 2022).