Belfast Telegraph

Given our poor leadership, it's no big surprise Northern Ireland's workplace ethics are so downright dire

Instead of providing any kind of moral authority, the state here is just a defunct sectarian mess, says Fionola Meredith

A belated happy Global Ethics Day! That's when organisations around the world come together to discuss the importance of moral values in business and international affairs. You didn't know? Me neither. The designated day to discuss best ethical practice at work was Wednesday. But it went largely unobserved here in Northern Ireland, perhaps because so many people are up to their necks in various forms of chicanery, skulduggery, swindling and cheating.

According to new research by ACCA, the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, Northern Ireland's workplaces are among the least ethical in the UK.

ACCA compared 11 UK regions and the Republic of Ireland. And they uncovered some rather seamy facts: 17% of employees in Northern Ireland have encountered someone using their position of power to sexually harass another, 25% of workers misuse their company's time and a further 22% never consider the ethical implications of their actions.

That harassment stat is 9% higher than anywhere else in the UK and Ireland, which suggests that there are a fair few small-town Harvey Weinsteins out there, chasing their female staff round the desk - or worse.

Casual contempt for women is embedded in the culture here, especially among the older generations. I can't count the number of times I've been taking part as a panellist in a radio discussion and some outraged male octogenarian has phoned in and referred to me as "that wee girl". It's precisely that sort of attitude that underpins disrespectful treatment of women in the workplace and elsewhere.

The study also found that 11% of workers have been asked to carry out tasks which they think are unethical, such as bullying, lying to hide mistakes, using bias to promote or avoid promoting someone, and stealing from work.

Despite all this, 100% of those surveyed in Northern Ireland claimed that they personally acted ethically in the workplace, which indicates astonishing levels of hypocrisy and self-delusion, given all the shenanigans apparently going on. This seems to be a collective case of passing the buck. Not me, squire, not my fault.

I suppose you could argue that some people simply don't have a clue about what acting ethically actually means. They neither know, nor care.

But surely most of us understand that it's wrong to steal, bully, harass and lie.

And anyway, are you really surprised? Northern Ireland is a basket-case when it comes to hucksterism, dirty deals and general bad behaviour: a cross between the Wild West and the Land That Time Forgot.

A variety of unsavoury antediluvian habits linger on unchecked, questionable practices which have long since been driven out from other more civilised and enlightened corners of the world. Here, the gombeen man is still king.

Stormont itself is held in contempt by many, precisely because of its reputation for scandal and sleaze. We still lack satisfactory answers on RHI, Red Sky, Charter NI and the Social Investment Fund, amongst others, and my guess is that we'll be waiting for those until eternity. But the list grows ever longer, and the questions continue to accumulate.

Meanwhile, politicians on every side love to posture and show off their highly-polished principles, posing either as the stalwart guardians of traditional moral values, or as progressive social justice warriors. But the fundamental truth is that the state has no moral authority. It's just a sectarian carve-up shop, currently defunct.

You can trace this moral vacuum back to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and the subsequent referendum endorsing it. Like many people, I voted yes because I wanted an end to the horror, and I was young and naive enough to believe in the possibility of peace, love and a little understanding.

But the unacknowledged upshot is that we have a system of governance that is predicated on pragmatism, not principle. It was a scrappy, desperate, morally dubious deal which brought former terrorists and their apologists into power.

To be honest, I'd vote the same way again today. What real choice did we have? We were in extremis. Anything was better than what went before. Now we have an imperfect peace, collectively administered by republican ideologues and religious fundamentalists, who between them have managed to run the whole show into the ground, and are currently barely speaking to one another.

It's still better than the past, of course. But we abdicated much of our moral authority, as a society, when we said yes to that initial deal.

Whether it's work-place shenanigans or political chicanery, forget about ethics.

All too often, it's just a case of what they can get away with.

Belfast Telegraph

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