“Trust has to be the highest value in your company and, if it’s not, something bad is going to happen to you.”
Those are the words of Marc Benioff, the co-founder and CEO of Salesforce—someone uniquely placed to talk about how to create and build a successful business.
We don’t spend money or do deals with companies we don’t trust. Research by Adobe in 2021 showed that 71% of British consumers would stop purchasing from a company if their trust was broken. Similarly, we don’t want to work for businesses that fail to treat us well or have a toxic culture. Gallup’s most recent State of the Global Workplace report concluded that nearly a fifth of staff are ‘loud quitting’, meaning there’s been a fundamental break in trust between employee and employer.
But what inspires trust in a business? Yes, it’s high-quality customer service and a supportive environment for staff, but those are just the manifestations of something deeper. The compact of trust between business and customer, employer and employee, is conditional on shared values and purpose.
Fundamentally, it involves the customer or member of staff believing a company will—and intends to—act ethically. The issue for companies, but also media organisations and charities, is that fewer Britons think that’s the case.
Feeling let down
The Institute of Business Ethics’ annual attitudes research found that just 38% of Britons believe companies operate ethically, down six percentage points from last year. Trust that media organisations act ethically is down—and even charities do not come away unscathed.
This doesn’t mean organisations are acting and behaving in an unethical way, but they are findings that should concern senior leaders. As Warren Buffet said, it can take 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. The danger for companies is that even if they are operating in a way that would be considered ethical, failing to communicate their purpose, values and practice to customers and staff leaves them at risk of lost business and lower employee retention.
The chief concern for the public is corporate tax avoidance. This is a reflection of high-profile incidents as opposed to companies failing to pay tax on an industrial scale. Senior leaders should also be mindful that 90% of Britons believe a chief executive’s pay should be linked to the ethical performance of their company—underlining the importance of effective communication of purpose, values and practice.
Our views on whether companies operate ethically are also shaped by our environment. Nearly a fifth of Britons expressed concern about the fair and open pricing of products and services. Which? similarly found in May that trust in the food and grocery industries had fallen to its lowest level in five years as households face the challenge of wages struggling to keep pace with the rate of inflation.
How to address customer concerns
The answer lies in ensuring correct behaviours and concrete action that can be demonstrated to customers. Public concern over the pricing of goods is telling and reflects the need for business transparency on the inflationary pressures they face, but also about where and how they are protecting customers from price increases—and where this is fundamentally impossible without stymying opportunities for growth or jeapordising their financial viability.
However, the results should also be a wake-up call to any company without a strategy to promote an ethical culture. This should include a publicly accessible code of ethics. If you want to demonstrate to customers and staff that you’re committed to doing the right thing for the right reasons, that must be your touchstone.
The good news is that big organisations get this. Our research has found that nine in ten FTSE 100 businesses already have a publicly accessible code of ethics. These can be improved—only half include written protections for staff raising concerns—but it is an important starting point, one that other organisations must follow, given just 40% of FTSE 250 companies have a publicly available code.
A culture of ethics
But a document to codify purpose and values is, by itself, unlikely to be enough to correct public perceptions of how businesses operate.
Senior leaders must embed the content of codes of ethics in the organisation’s culture, exemplifying the expected behaviours of staff and continually checking to ensure their values are appropriate and right for the times.
There is work to do for businesses to win back the trust of the public. Having a public code of ethics is an important start, but a demonstrable culture of ethical behaviour is what matters most.
Get that right and companies give themselves the best chance for success. Get it wrong and, as Marc Benioff says, something bad is going to happen.
Ian Peters MBE is the director of the Institute of Business Ethics.