The Decline of Workplace Misconduct

workplace misconductThe good news coming from a recent Ethics Resource Center study? Corporate misconduct seems to be on the wane, overall.

The not-so-good news? A majority of the misdeeds that are occurring in the workplace are committed by those the organization counts on to set an example for employees to follow.

The Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit research organization’s eighth National Business Ethics Survey finds 41 percent of 6,400 U.S. employees reporting they observed misconduct in 2013; down from 55 percent in 2007. And only 9 percent of employees said they felt pressure to compromise their ethical standards in 2013, compared to 13 percent who said the same in 2011, the last time the ERC conducted its business ethics survey.

The shrinking number of employees witnessing transgressions at work implies a connection between fewer cases of misconduct and solid ethics training, along with a strong culture, said ERC President Patricia J. Harned, in a statement.

The numbers indicate as much, with the percentage of companies reporting a “strong” or “strong-leaning” ethics culture increasing to 66 percent in 2013, up from 60 percent in 2011. In addition, 81 percent of companies provided ethics training in 2013, with 67 percent including ethical conduct as a performance measure in employee evaluations, according to the survey.

So, it would appear that ethics training programs are largely doing a good job of connecting with the average employee. A more troublesome finding to emerge from the poll, however, suggests the message isn’t reaching the higher levels of the organization.

The survey found managers engaged in 60 percent of the misdeeds seen by employees in 2013, with senior managers more likely than lower-level supervisors to break rules. Senior managers were identified in 24 percent of these cases, with middle managers and first-line supervisors pinpointed 19 percent and 17 percent of the time, respectively.

It may not be all that surprising that the propensity for bad behavior increases with rank. But HR leaders are “uniquely suited” to push the organization’s ethics program forward and help build an ethically solid workplace from top to bottom, ERC Senior Vice President Moira McGinty Kios recently told Bloomberg BNA.

“Employee evaluations, promotions and activities related to counseling, discipline and terminations are HR responsibilities,” said McGinty Kios. “HR professionals are perfectly positioned to ensure that each one of these areas is an opportunity to promote the company’s values, and as a result, promote and improve ethics in the workplace.”

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