Employees are still concerned that bosses are prioritising profits over principles, according to the Institute of Leadership & Management’s latest Index of Leadership Trust, although overall trust in CEOs has improved.

The survey of over 2,500 workers found that half of respondents believe that their employer puts financial goals above ethical considerations, with 48% and 44% saying the same of their chief executive and line manager.

Less than a third (30%) of CEOs of organisations with over 1,000 employees are seen by their employees to have ethics at the heart of business decisions, while just 36% believe them to have high ethical standards.

Peter Cheese, chairman of the Institute of Leadership & Management, said: “With the banking crisis, the phone hacking scandal and the outcry over MPs’ expenses, the ethical behaviour of leaders and their organisations is under strong scrutiny.

“It is an increasingly critical issue that impacts brand image, trust and business performance. Employees, customers and shareholders expect ethical values to be at the heart of business decision. The fact that so many leaders and organisations are perceived not to have that is a cause for serious concern and attention.”

The results also show that almost a fifth (17%) of public sector employees believe their organisation operates less ethically today than three years ago. In comparison, 11% of private sector employees and 8% of third sector staff feel the same.

The group which has seen the greatest improvement in ethics levels work in financial services, banking and insurance, where almost half of staff (46%) say the industry has changed for the better in the last three years.

Least impressed are workers in national and local government where 21% feel activities have become less ethical since 2008. This is closely followed by the utilities, post and telecoms sector at 20%.

The 2011 Index of Leadership Trust is the third annual barometer of trust levels within British business. Another key finding from this year’s research is that public sector bosses remain the least trusted. Public sector CEOs score just 67 points out of a possible 100, compared to 72 points for bosses from both the private and third sector.

These low levels of trust in the public sector are compounded within public sector organisations with over 1,000 staff, where CEOs score just 55, seven points behind bosses within large private sector businesses, who receive a score of 62. Third sector bosses are the most trusted on 65 points.

Overall trust in CEOs has increased in 2011, up four points to 66 from 2010 and up six points from 56 in 2009.

Peter Cheese added: “Since trust in leadership is so fundamental it is encouraging that more bosses are taking a hands-on approach to management and successfully leading their organisations through difficult times.

“The trust deficit within large public sector organisations is a real concern. It may be tough in the face of severe budget cuts, on-going economic uncertainty and the continuous policy changes but without high levels of trust in leaders it will be very hard to execute the necessary changes successfully.

“Public sector leaders must embrace these challenges and reach out more directly to their staff and engage them and show they are driving forward change to create stronger and more effective organisations able to respond to the needs of our country.”