Petra Cook urges companies to develop an ethical code of practice that enables employees to speak out about grievances or malpractice by other staff without fear of reprisals

The investigation into the supermarkets code of conduct by the OFT has attracted much attention due to the high level of complaints made about supermarkets by their suppliers and the perceived lack of evidence to support them.
The implication is that suppliers are too afraid of the consequences to report evidence of supermarket malpractice and are therefore remaining quiet.
The OFT has a difficult job ahead of it if the truth is to be revealed, but it is important for both the industry and the suppliers that any problems are discovered and rectified.
In all organisations, large and small, it is essential that people feel able to report inappropriate behaviour without fear of recrimination, and, as a leader, it is your responsibility to create a positive ethical organisational environment.
By ensuring the workforce has strong ethical values, the organisational culture can be developed into one of trust and respect. Corporate confidence and energy filter through to individual employees. When employees feel they are part of a growing business, they are more likely to be highly motivated, more responsive to change and more likely to perform better.
It also helps to ensure that relationships with other organisations and colleagues are developed and maintained in a mutually beneficial manner which perpetuates a positive, healthy reputation.
And no business can afford to underestimate the immense value of a good reputation that inspires public confidence.
The creation of a code of ethics will help you to communicate
explicit guidance to managers and employees so that they know what is expected of them in terms of ethical behaviour.
It will also serve to provide new employees with ethical guidance and a sense of common identity and it should signal to suppliers and customers the organisation’s expectation of proper conduct.
A code of ethics promotes excellence by demonstrating the commitment of the organisation to ethical behaviour. However, it is not good enough to have a code of ethics if its contents are not being implemented.
It is your responsibility to demonstrate business behaviour that will earn you the respect that is deserved - and to encourage others to do the same.
Creating an ethical environment includes the development of a clear whistleblowing policy. If people feel unhappy or uncomfortable about the behaviour of another person within the organisation, they should be able to voice their concerns in a confidential, responsible manner and they should expect to be taken seriously, listened to and respected for coming forward.
Of course, the culture in your organisation should be one in which employees are able to report inappropriate behaviour without fearing the consequences, but your team members will also need guidelines outlining the whistleblowing process in detail.
In essence, it should create an open culture, establish safe routes for expressing concerns and protect the employee. It should enable a fair and impartial investigative procedure and remind staff of their duty of confidentiality. Nobody should be afraid to speak out about malpractice or breaches of the business’s code of conduct, and such incidents should be addressed as soon as they are detected. In the retail sector, where reputation and customer satisfaction are so important, it is up to leaders to create the right kind of culture within their organisations to reduce the fear factor and encourage ethical practice.
The OFT will decide whether supermarkets are bullying their suppliers to prevent them submitting evidence of malpractice, but if organisations are to ensure that employees do the right thing, they need to ensure that blowing the whistle does not signal an opportunity for unfair treatment or accusations. Such a delicate matter needs careful handling and extreme sensitivity, but above all, it requires trust - and that is a two-way street.
n Petra Cook is head of Public Affairs, Chartered Management Institute