American businesses are doing a better job at fostering ethical workforces, according to a new survey conducted by the Ethics Resource Center. Results of the Center's National Business Ethics Survey show workplace misconduct is at a historic low and fewer employees feel pressured to compromise standards. At the same time, the survey reported that those at the managerial level commit the largest percentage of misconduct, and retaliation remains a strong deterrent to reporting misbehavior.
The Good News
The Center conducts its study every two years and has found workplace misconduct has steadily declined since 2007. In the 2013 survey, workplace misconduct not only declined — from 55% of respondents reporting they had observed misconduct at work in 2007 to 41% — but did so in every one of the 26 specific categories of the survey. Workers also reported feeling less pressure to compromise standards — often the leading indicator of future misconduct — with only 9% of respondents feeling such pressure, down from 13% in 2011.
The Bad News
While overall misconduct is down, the survey found that management is responsible for 60% of workplace misconduct. Almost a quarter of respondents (25%) pointed to senior management as most likely to break the rules, with middle managers culpable 19% of the time and immediate supervisors coming in at 17%. Furthermore, most misconduct is part of an ongoing pattern of behavior, while only 33% witnessed rules broken in a one-time incident.
Managerial misconduct may go hand in hand with the fact that a significant portion of workers (21%) suffered retribution when they reported bad behavior. This rate of retaliation nearly mirrors the 22% seen in 2011 but is significantly higher than the 12% rate seen in 2007. Most respondents who did not report misconduct kept quiet for fear of retaliation from management (34%) and/or concern over their co-workers' reactions (24%).
Room for Improvement
Researchers think the steady decline in workplace misconduct may be due, in part, to the tendency of workers to take fewer risks in an uncertain economic environment. Yet, the results also show that American companies are taking ethics and compliance more seriously and successfully implementing a culture of ethical performance:
Those viewing their company as having a "strong" ethical culture rose from 60% in 2011 to 66% in 2013;
The percentage of companies providing ethics training rose from 74% to 81% between 2011 and 2013; and
Two-thirds of companies use ethical conduct as a performance measure in employee evaluations, up from 60% in 2011.
The survey results show these investments in ethics and compliance are paying off, but there remains room for improvement. The static percentage of workers who reported misconduct indicates retaliation remains a significant issue that discourages reporting and makes it more difficult for companies to identify and address misconduct.
Building a strong ethics culture is a constant work in progress that companies reinforce regularly. Workplace misconduct not only has a negative impact on the work environment and company reputation, it also exposes companies to legal penalties, fines and increased regulatory scrutiny. A crucial part of stemming misconduct is making it clear what is expected of employees and how to recognize potential issues.