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Which corporate roles are perceived most ethically?

New research shines a light on which occupations are seen as being ethical or not by Australians, and how the past year has informed such perceptions.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 01 December 2020 Corporate Counsel
Megan Motto
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The fifth annual Ethics Index, which quantifies the perceptions of Australians of the overall importance of ethics and the level of ethical behaviour of individuals, institutions and professional strands across the country, has been published by Governance Institute of Australia.

On Tuesday, 24 November, Lawyers Weekly published a podcast episode in conjunction with Governance Institute, unpacking how the legal profession across the board has fared this past year, and why perceptions have changed in that time.

The research found that, within the corporate sector, company secretaries are seen as being the most ethical, which 49 per cent deeming them “somewhat ethical” or “very ethical”, and 20 per cent seeing them as “somewhat unethical” or “very unethical”, for a net score of 29 (up from 20 in 2019).


The score for company secretaries comfortably bested other corporate roles, with CFOs securing a net score of 19 (up from two last year), directors of Australian companies having a net score of 17 (up from five), and chief executives/managing directors at 10 (up from two last year).

Directors of foreign companies in Australia still rank poorly, with a net ethical score of -4. However, this was up from their disastrous showing of -21 in 2019.

The Ethics Index did not specifically examine ethical perceptions of in-house counsel, but found that lawyers as a broad cohort are perceived more ethically this year than last.

Interestingly, Australian listed public companies were perceived much more ethically than our unlisted private companies, with the former having a net ethical score of 27 (up from 23 last year) compared to the latter’s net score of 16 (up from nine in 2019).

Speaking on The Lawyers Weekly Show, Governance Institute CEO Megan Motto said that the increased prominence of company secretaries and governance professionals more broadly within organisations has had a “significant impact” on improved perceptions, “particularly because the company secretaries are very much seen as the balancing point, assisting the board but also enabling boards to make good decisions that are in the economic and long-term best interests of their organisations”.

“Company secretaries are seen more and more as being the ethical and moral, if you like, voice in the boardroom, a balancing voice in the boardroom to manage between the competing interests, particularly of executives at times whose remuneration structures are directly tied to financial incentives and often not as well tied to broader incentives and we’re seeing that play out once again through questioning through Royal Commissions and other scandals of late,” she posited.

The research also revealed that Australians’ perceptions of judges’ ethics have improved in 2020, and that law societies are also deemed more favourably this year, after years of declining community impressions.

To listen to the full episode about the Ethics Index 2020, click below:

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