According to the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey, a report published by the Ethics Resource Center, the ethical culture of the American workplace is in transition. The survey, the seventh since 1994, was conducted for the purpose of understanding how employees at all levels view ethics and compliance at work.

Its overall results send mixed signals to employers. While positive indicators are included in the findings, they are clouded by “ominous warning signs of a potentially significant ethics decline ahead.”

On the positive side, the data revealed historically low levels of misconduct in the American workplace and near record high levels of employees reporting misconduct that they observed. On the negative side, however, there was a sharp rise in retaliation against employee whistleblowers, an increase in the percentage of employees who perceived pressure to compromise standards in order to do their jobs, and near record levels of companies with weak ethical cultures.
The economy was identified as one of the factors influencing the shift in trends.

In its projection of anticipated economic growth, the report predicted the following: “History teaches a bittersweet lesson that goes with the good omens: when economic recovery takes place, some companies lose their focus on ethics, some employees will return to risky behavior, and misconduct is likely to rise.

Indeed, the rise in retaliation, increased pressure to break rules, and the decline in ethics cultures suggests that — at least at the corporate level — some slippage has occurred already.

The stage is set for a larger jump in misconduct once a strong economy reduces companies’ ethics focus and eases employees’ worry about job security.”

The Ethics Resource Center published a supplemental report, “Retaliation: When Whistleblowers Become Victims,” as a follow up to related trends identified in the 2011 survey.

Among its findings, the report noted that “not only is retaliation on the rise nationally, it is rapidly becoming an issue even at companies with a demonstrated commitment to ethics and integrity.” Both reports and related information can be found here.

The following are a number of employment-related considerations to assist employers in strengthening the ethical cultures of their organizations:

  1. Ensure that all levels of management understand the organization’s commitment to ethics, beginning with the senior leadership team. Leaders who consistently act with integrity and lead by example reinforce organizational values and serve as role models for employees.
  2. Incorporate policies in the employee handbook that establish expectations for ethical conduct. Include a policy on business ethics that covers conflicts of interest, work-related gifts and gratuities, and other related topics. Develop policies that affirm the organization’s compliance with applicable laws, including equal employment and harassment. Add language to existing policies that addresses other aspects of ethical conduct, such as requirements for employees to maintain accurate records and reports.
  3. Take steps to prevent retaliation against individuals who exercise legally protected rights, such as participating in employment investigations or lawsuits. Ensure that supervisors and managers understand their responsibilities, including the levels of approval required prior to taking disciplinary action. Incorporate language prohibiting retaliatory behaviors in appropriate policies. Consider drafting a separate anti-retaliation policy to underscore the organization’s commitment to an environment in which conduct of this nature is not tolerated.
  4. Develop and communicate procedures for reporting misconduct. Anticipate the types of ethical issues which may arise and tailor procedures accordingly. Consider the need to provide a way for employees to bypass their immediate supervisors and report violations to other members of management, such as in situations involving harassment.
  5. Adopt consistent enforcement policies and practices. Conduct prompt and objective investigations of potential ethical misconduct. Maintain the integrity of the organization’s policies by holding all employees accountable for their actions, even if violations involve executives and top performers.
  6. Provide training and communicate information to assist supervision and employees in making ethical decisions. Cover policies and other expectations the organization has in place for compliance purposes. Challenge individuals to reflect on the results of their decisions, such as how potential actions will impact others. Create an awareness of the need to guard against justifying unethical decisions with excuses or rationalizations, including “everybody is doing it” or “it’s ethical if it’s not illegal.”
  7. Examine financial incentives and other rewards that target individual and organizational performance prior to implementation in order to minimize the potential for unintended consequences. Consider whether rewards will motivate individuals to cut corners or take inappropriate risks. Decide if it is necessary to institute checks and balances or other measures to hold individuals accountable for their behavior.
  8. Make ethics a part of workplace discussions on a regular basis. For example, seek input regarding whether certain actions under consideration are the right things to do. Remind employees to pause, reflect and ask questions to obtain information if they are uncertain about the appropriateness of decisions they are making.

*Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Memphis Business Journal