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In Nordic companies, it’s not common to speak up

A recent survey by the Nordic Business Ethics Network into how 1,500 employees in Finland, Norway and Sweden, perceive ethics at their workplaces reveal that over 90 percent value an ethical working place higher than a salary increase or a promotion. Despite this, over 80 percent have witnessed unethical behavior at their workplace during the last year. 

The most common response is not to intervene.

According to the survey the most common ethical misconduct experienced was disrespectful behavior, leadership that contradicts the corporate values, favoritism, nepotism and distorting of facts. Some 13 percent of the respondents, and 21 percent of top management, had witnessed bribery or corruption during the last year.

Over 40 percent of the respondents replied that they did not know how to act when witnessing unethical behavior and 47 percent of the respondents did not do anything when they witnessed ethical misconduct. The survey also revealed that formal whistleblowing channels are not that common, only 18 percent of the respondents, from the private, public and non-profit sectors, said that they had access to a formal whistleblowing channel. The most common reporting channel is said to be the line manager (88 percent). In combination with that one third of the line managers responded that they did not intervene when witnessing an ethical concern leaves room for significant improvement when it comes to channels and processes for raising and addressing ethical concerns.

Managers have a rosier picture of the reality than employees.

The most important factors for an ethical working place is said to be the possibility to raise concerns without a fear for retaliation, respectful behavior and fair and transparent decision-making. The survey reveals a deviation between how employees and managers perceive that these factors are applied in practice. For example almost 80 percent of managers perceive that employees always are treated with respect when only 60 percent of employees agree. Approximately 75 percent of managers perceive that employees are comfortable to raise concerns without a fear of retaliation when only 55 – 60 percent of employees agree.

Differences between the Nordic countries.

The survey also reveals some differences between the Nordic countries. In Finland the most common reason for not speaking up was “it is none of my business,” when the most common reason for not speaking up in Norway and Sweden was that “it will not make a difference.” In Finland some 20 percent of the respondents had, during the last year, been put in a situation where they had to compromise ethical standards at work. In Norway and Sweden this was below 10 percent. The most common reason, in all countries, for why employees feel forced to breach the ethical standards of their organization was because “my boss told me so.”

According to the survey ethical standards, and code of conducts, are more common in Norway (69 percent) and Sweden (64 percent) than in Finland (35 percent). A strikingly high share of respondents, in all countries, did not know if their organization had ethical standards or code of conducts and only one third of the respondents said they receive regular training in ethical matters.

This is perhaps a reason for why employees and managers decide not to intervene when they witness something unethical. 

The full survey report is available here


Niina Ratsula, pictured above left, is an ethics, integrity and compliance expert. She spent 12 years in multinational corporations (Nokia and Kemira) focusing on ethics, compliance, internal controls and audit. In 2018 she started the Code of Conduct Company and is now supporting organizations in building their ethics and compliance programs, ethical leadership, and internal audit functions. 

Anna Romberg, above right, is an anti-corruption, compliance and corporate governance expert. She has deployed ethics and compliance organizations and programs in Telia and Cargotec and has interacted with regulators in several jurisdictions. Based on her in-house experience from internal audit, internal controls, risk management and compliance, she is now assisting global companies in managing corporate conduct risk.

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  1. From down here (in Brazil), I have an image that Nordic countries are the most ethical all over the world. I wonder how results of surveys like that in other parts of the world would be.
    Other issue: It seems to me that it is natural to have assessment differences between managers and employees (they share the same company, but have different levels of information). Then the question is if the differences pointed out in the survey are reasonable or a point of concern regarding Companies´ ethics.

  2. Interesting. How is it possible that these Nordic countries score best in the Transpareny International Corruption Perception Index?

  3. To paraphrase Niklas Luhmann, in his writing on risk and the differences between decision-makers and employees, the question becomes, 'by whom does one fear to be observed?'

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