Good News for a Change

Published: February 5, 2014

By Jim Lichtman
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According to the most recent survey by The Ethics Resource Center, America’s oldest nonprofit for advancing high ethical standards and practices, “workplace misconduct is at a historic low.”

(No, that’s not a set-up for a joke.)

The 2013 National Business Ethics Survey, conducted every two years by the organization,

“…shows that 41 percent of over 6,400 workers surveyed said they have observed misconduct on the job, down from 55 percent in 2007. In addition, the report found that fewer employees felt pressure to compromise their standards, down to nine percent from 13 percent in 2011.

“The continued decline in wrongdoing defied two factors that often accompany observed misconduct – retaliation and pressure to violate rules, which both rose two years ago in NBES 2011 and seemed to foreshadow an uptick in bad behavior,” the report said.

“Historically, higher stock prices have been accompanied by higher rates of misconduct, presumably because workers and companies both were tempted to take more risks in order to enjoy the rising tides. The reverse was also true: In times of economic challenge, companies focused on ethics in order to weather the storm and misconduct declined accordingly.”

However, the report tempered some of that enthusiasm with what they call “areas of concern.

“While misconduct is down overall, a relatively high percentage of misconduct is committed by managers – the very people who are supposed to set a good example of ethical conduct and make sure that employees honor company rules. Workers reported that 60 percent of misconduct involved someone with managerial authority from the supervisory level up to top management. Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of observed misdeeds involved senior managers. Perhaps equally troubling, workers said that 26 percent of misconduct is ongoing within their organization. About 12 percent of wrongdoing was reported to take place company-wide.

“More than 1 in 5 U.S. workers (21 percent),” the report said, “who reported misconduct said they experienced retaliation.

“The high retaliation rate is worrisome because retaliation reduces workers’ willingness to report misconduct. When asked why they kept quiet about misconduct, more than one-third (34 percent) of those who declined to report said they feared payback from senior leadership. Thirty percent worried about retaliation from a supervisor, and 24 percent said their co-workers might react against them.”

Nonetheless, the latest ERC report demonstrates a definite trend toward more ethical conduct in the workplace.

“The steady and sharp drop in misconduct since 2007 suggests that something both fundamental and good is taking place in the way Americans conduct themselves at work,” the ERC concluded. “Companies’ investments in ethics and compliance are paying off, but there remains room for improvement. The data show just enough negative results to suggest that progress is not necessarily irreversible – especially if a revitalized economy arouses workers’ willingness to engage in riskier behavior. It is clear that manager behavior could be improved, and that reducing retaliation is essential. Building strong ethics cultures remains a constant work in progress.”

In light of recent news regarding 92 Air Force officers that were suspended for cheating on their missile exam, as well as ethical lapses on Wall Street, it’s important to remember that context is important in judging public and private sectors’ ethical soundness.

Bottom line: Ethically speaking, American workers are heading in the right direction.


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