Anthony Hilton: The most unethical business sectors are revealed in a survey of the press


Breakfast on Tuesday with the Institute of Business Ethics, an organisation founded in 1986 to help spread good practice and assist firms in establishing and embedding a culture of ethical behaviour.

One of its activities is to monitor press coverage to get a feel for what the public is worried about and it has just published a summary of this weekly monitoring culled from more than 1,000 articles in the last two years.

It is perhaps no surprise to find that the financial sector comes top of the list for allegations of misconduct, accounting for an eye-catching 404 of the 1,081 total. Next came retail, with 126 – but not, interestingly, because of horse meat. The extractive industries – mining and oil – was third on 70, followed closely by pharmaceuticals, technology and electronics. After that the list drops away sharply, but what you might not expect is that the sector right at the bottom, with just two negative stories over two years, is tobacco. Down there with it, the cluster of good guys, all with fewer than 10 mentions, are legal, construction, advertising and defence/security. As I say, not entirely what you might expect.

Almost one in five of the stories about the financial sector – which includes insurance and payday lenders – was about the bonus culture and pay, followed by almost one in five on fraud and theft – a reflection mainly of the manipulation of Libor. Then, each with fewer than 10 per cent, came mis-selling, the treatment of stakeholders, tax avoidance, bribery and money-laundering.

The issue in retail was mis-treatment of stakeholders, mainly treatment of staff. It was followed by supply chain issues, notably sweatshop labour and poor working conditions.

Mining, in contrast, was criticised mostly for bribery and corruption. Other issues, such as pay, the treatment of employees and the way the businesses are run, all scored under 10 per cent. Bribery was also the big issue for pharmaceuticals, almost half the stories being on this topic, and in particular relating to what was going on in China. The other big concern was the way some used advertising and marketing.

Of the 26 different ethical issues that the survey highlights, bribery (13 per cent) and the mistreatment of customers, suppliers and staff (12 per cent) ranked first and second. Pay was third. And the sector which suffered the biggest increase in negative coverage between 2012 and 2013 was utilities.