Workplace Ethics under Stress

The economy and shifting technology have introduced more stress into the workplace and more pressure on ethical standards and behavior.The latest national ethics in the workplace study shows employee whistle-blowing rising at the same time as retaliation against whistleblowers rose. The study, conducted by the Ethics Resource Center, also revealed active social network users appear more tolerant of workplace practices that employers view as questionable.

The Ethics Resource Center, a private nonprofit research organization, has conducted an annual workplace ethics study since 1994, affording the ability to look at long-term or emerging trends. For its 2011 report, the Center interviewed 4,800 full- and part-time workers at various levels in mostly private-sector businesses. One-third were interviewed by telephone or cell phone and two-thirds participated online. Responses were captured last September 15-29.

Among the key findings from the 2011 report:

  • The percentage of employees who perceived pressure to compromise standards to do their jobs climbed five points from 2009 to 13 percent in 2011.

  • The share of companies with weak ethics cultures climbed to near record levels at 42 percent.

  • Misconduct witnessed by U.S. workers fell to a new low of 45 percent, while reporting of misconduct reached a record high of 65 percent.

  • More than one in five employee whistleblowers reported retaliation, ranging from demotion to verbal abuse to being excluded from key decisions or work activity.

  • Around one-third of employees say management watches them more closely.

  • More than four in 10 employees say their company has increased awareness of ethics.

Most forms of misconduct increased from levels reported in 2009 on a similar survey. Sexual harassment and substance abuse each rose to 11 percent. Health and safety violations climbed to 13 percent. "For many Americans, the economy in 2011 seems only slightly better than during the recession," the report concludes.

Maybe the most startling, and perhaps controversial, findings deal with active social networks and workplace ethics.

"Active social networkers show a higher tolerance for certain activities that could be considered questionable," the report says. "For example, among active social networkers, half feel it is acceptable to keep copies of confidential work documents in case they need them in their next job, compared to only 15 percent of colleagues."

"Two pervasive external factors seem to have played a role in the extreme nature of the findings this year," says ERC President Patricia Harned. "The economy and technology (specifically social networking) are not only changing the way we behave outside the workplace, they seem to be influencing the way we conduct ourselves at work."

"The data make a very clear case," Harned says, "that if business leaders will take heed of these findings and make ethics a business priority, they can have a dramatic impact on the conduct of their workforce."