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Ethical dilemmas: A question of integrity

Many years ago, our ubiquitous consultant Antonia had a project to conduct an appraisal of a medium-sized, family-owned service business which employed some 300 staff. While carrying out this assignment, she became convinced that the board of directors were unaware of the true feelings and opinions held by their employees. Antonia therefore recommended that an attitude survey would be helpful to the board to ensure that the employees’ concerns were understood and addressed; without such understanding, staff performance and morale could suffer, and, as a consequence, adversely affect the level of service. Attention to customer needs could deteriorate and the business would enter a downward spiral from which it would be difficult to recover.

This proposal was accepted by the board and Antonia started on designing a suitable questionnaire. Nowadays such a questionnaire would be distributed and returned on-line, but this project took place before this was easily possible; questionnaires would be completed in hard copy. Even so, Antonia wanted to encourage all staff to feel comfortable to express their opinions freely without fear of reprisals, so she included a covering memo explaining that the forms could be returned to her directly and responses would be organised and reported without sources being identified.

Antonia intended to be present when small groups of staff were completing the questionnaire; this would enable them to ask questions and to hand the form to her immediately. However, for practical reasons, such as the shift pattern of work, it was not possible for Antonia to meet all the staff in small groups and other arrangements had to be made. For the staff who wouldn't be able to attend group sessions, it was agreed that their forms would be returned to reception where Antonia would collect them, or the completed questionnaires could be posted directly to her.

There was a very high response rate yet Antonia found that none of the completed questionnaires were arriving via the reception. On making enquiries about this, she found that the CEO had been collecting the forms and reading them without passing them onto her.

She arranged a meeting with the CEO and asked for the forms. She also questioned him as to why he had done this, when she had given written assurances to the staff that this wouldn't happen. She explained again that, if the staff became aware that directors were reading the original forms, it was likely that they would not be as open as they could; on the contrary, they would probably respond by saying only what they thought the directors wanted to hear. This would render the survey useless.

The CEO far from being chastened demanded that Antonia hand over those forms she had already received. This demand broke their agreement and would jeopardise the balance of all her other work for this client. It also challenged her integrity since she had given staff the assurance that their responses would be treated confidentially. No amount of explanation, justification or reference to other similar assignments could change the CEO’s mind. Is this the end of the line?

What should she do?

Monday 1st March 2021
The Thinker statue