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WFH post-pandemic considered more ethical than not amid rising case numbers

Employers who fail to make flexible working part of their culture are considered more unethical in the face of COVID-19, according to new research.

user iconLauren Croft 21 November 2022 Big Law
WFH post-pandemic considered more ethical than not amid rising case numbers
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The Governance Institute of Australia recently released its annual Ethics Index, which showed that Australia’s ethics dropped in 2022, falling for the second year in a row.

Last year, lawyers scored a net ethical score of zero, marking a significant drop from the 2020 figure of +11. However, this year, lawyers’ net ethical score rose to six, despite ethical scores in the majority of other occupations dropping. 

Legal professionals across the country were perceived as either “somewhat ethical” or “very ethical” by 41 per cent of respondents, with 35 per cent describing lawyers as “somewhat unethical” or “very unethical”.


The index also asked questions related to COVID-19 — finding that 78 per cent of respondents said they would take a test if COVID-19 symptoms appeared close to an interstate holiday, and “balancing freedom of movement and individual liberties with ongoing efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19” ranked as the fourth most important ethical challenge over the next 12 months.

In terms of ethical COVID-19 work practices, employers requiring employees to wear masks in the office were ranked as more ethical than not — with a net score of 39, dropping from 54 in 2021.

Employers requiring employees to restrict their behaviour outside of work hours in order to minimise exposure to COVID-19 — including attendance at social events and international holidays — received the lowest score at -29, with 55 per cent of respondents perceiving it as “somewhat unethical” or “very unethical”.

In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Governance Institute of Australia chief executive Megan Motto said that a number of COVID-19 practices perceived to be less ethical than last year are likely due to eased concern around the pandemic — but that certain sectors are likely to continue to experience a decline.

“COVID-19 is still very much in the minds of the Australian community, but the challenges have evolved. When asked how ethical individual work practices are within the context of COVID-19, there is a split between practices Australians rate to be on balance ethical, versus those felt to be unethical,” she said.

“Given the increasing complexities within the media and social media sectors, a further short-medium term decline in ethical trust would not be surprising. Without strong governance frameworks, the political, public sector, finance, insurance and banking sectors will continue to lose ethical trust and score poorly.

Sixty-one per cent of respondents perceived “employers expecting staff to come into the office when the government recommends working from home during rises in case numbers” to be very or somewhat unethical — reflecting a growing trend in lawyers demanding flexible working arrangements post-pandemic, particularly with respect to new waves of cases. 

Interestingly, employers requiring employees to return to the office when they don’t want to and can work from home effectively was perceived as somewhat or very ethical by a third of respondents, with 37 per cent of respondents having the opposite opinion.

However, multiple partners have recently expressed concerns regarding missed mentoring and learning opportunities in the face of flexible working. Contrastingly, UK firm Stephenson Harwood told its staff in May they could work from home permanently — provided they take a 20 per cent pay cut, with smaller firms in Australia also embracing a more hybrid model.

Moreover, certain categories of employees in Australia — such as those with a disability or parental or carer responsibilities — actually have a right under the Fair Work Act to make a request for flexible working arrangements.

“Australians have shown they are more than capable of getting the job done working flexibly. Good governance promotes agile practices that fit an organisation’s needs, and in this instance, allowing employees to work from home in order to follow health advice seems logical,” Ms Motto added.  

“Following two years of poor results, it’s time for an ethical reset for the nation. Organisations must reaffirm their commitment to ethics and create a positive culture. If culture is not deeply entwined with your overall strategic plan, then there is more work to be done.”

Lauren Croft

Lauren Croft

Lauren is a journalist at Lawyers Weekly and graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism from Macleay College. Prior to joining Lawyers Weekly, she worked as a trade journalist for media and travel industry publications and Travel Weekly. Originally born in England, Lauren enjoys trying new bars and restaurants, attending music festivals and travelling. She is also a keen snowboarder and pre-pandemic, spent a season living in a French ski resort.

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