National Ethics Report: Have we turned a corner?

Every two years, the Ethics Resource Center releases their latest national survey on the state of ethics in the US.  There are indications that we may have permanently turned the corner on misconduct related to unethical behavior.  Yet, there is still work to be done on retaliation as it remains at a high level.

Perhaps the message is simple:  Continue to focus on ethical behavior while increasing efforts on creating ways for people to report ethical issues in an environment free from retaliation.

Or, even better yet as a client put it:  “Don’t let up on the gas pedal.  And watch your dashboard more often–trusting warning lights when they light.”

I encourage you to read the entire report.  The following are highlights:

Misconduct witnessed by U.S. workers is now at historic lows (41% report observing some form of ethical misconduct), and it is down in all categories including the pressure to compromise standards.

  • 2000: 55%
  • 2003:  46%
  • 2005:  52%
  • 2007:  57%
  • 2009:  49%
  • 2011:  45%
  • 2013:  41%

24% report misdeeds are committed by senior management (C-level, VP)

63% report some form of questionable misconduct, boarding on unethical behavior (slightly down from past surveys):

  • 26% report misconduct is ongoing in their organization—is routine
  • 12% report wrongdoing is essentially company-wide and known

Retaliation against employee whistleblowers continues to be high at 22%–that equates to 6.2 Americans (based on Bureau of Labor Statistics population numbers)

  • 69% supervisor intentionally ignored or treated differently  (new this survey; all others were down)
  • 59% got ‘cold shoulder’ from other employees
  • 54% were excluded by manager/supervisor from decisions/discussions
  • 49% were verbally abused by manager/supervisor
  • 47% promotion or raise was not given
  • 43% were verbally abused by co-workers
  • 38% almost lost their job
  • 33% experience some form of harassment either online or at their home
  • 29% hours or pay were cut

Training and awareness seem to work (these percentages are at their highest)

  • 81% provide ethics training
  • 67% include it in performance measurements
  • 74% communicate wrongdoing internally
  • 2/3 have positive ethics cultures with strong policies, enforcement, and communication and there is a 60-percentage point difference in companies with weak-to-strong cultures

Top 5 observable misconduct (all represent a decrease from previous surveys):

  • Abusive or intimidating behavior 18%
  • Lying 17%
  • Conflict of interest 12%
  • Violating company internet use policies 12%
  • Discrimination 12%
  • One area was new to the report:  falsifying invoices, books, records  at 4% reporting it

What gets reported varies from the above list.  These represent those ethical issues which actually get reported formally in the organization.  Note that the first 4 represent a decrease while the last two represent an increase from previous surveys:

  • Inappropriate gifts or kickbacks 36%
  • Violating company internet use policies 37%
  • Lying 38%
  • Improper hiring procedures 39%
  • Falsifying invoice, books, records 40%
  • Violating contract terms with customers or suppliers 59%

The majority of reporting is done through internal channels.  Only 20% report through an external channel such as a third-party agency or department–usually a governmental or regulatory agency.  Internally, people report to:

  • Person’s supervisor 82%
  • Upper management 52%
  • HR 32%
  • Ethics office 15%
  • Legal 11%


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