Are Ethics Violations Becoming A Spectator Activity?

A few weeks ago in the Weekly Ethics Thought, I discussed data from a large 2005 survey showing that the number of observed ethics violations in businesses had been growing while employees’ reporting of them had declined by 10% over a three year period. Those are, of course, alarming findings.

But what exactly accounted for those numbers? It’s tough to say.

Of course, it is important to not automatically panic about an increase in observed ethics lapses. After all, it is possible that this trend actually represents a positive change in employees being more observant and, perhaps, more honest in their survey responses instead of these data demonstrating a negative trend in ethics. (Unfortunately, of course, the reported number of observed ethics lapses is still terrifyingly high and the number of reports is terrifyingly low.)

It is tough to find a way to positively spin the 10% reduction in reporting, however. Could it be that employees are becoming so used to ethics problems that they are simply ever-more prone to accept them as a normal and acceptable part of business life? Are we getting better at training how to spot ethics problems but worse on training employees how to respond when they see one? Have we fallen down on showing employees the many ways in which it is critical that they report ethics violations? Is there growth in unseen or unreported retribution for whistle-blowing that is driving this trend?

Apparently, those questions touched a nerve with Weekly Ethics Thought readers since I got a remarkable amount of follow-up email offering theories. Though hardly representing a scientific survey, the tenor of the responses was interestingly similar, emotional, and pessimistic.

Citing personal experiences as well as the experiences of colleagues, coworkers, and spouses/partners, the four most frequently cited rationales were:

-> Seeing management as unwilling to respond to ethics concerns or complaints has left employees without motivation to report problems.

-> Perceived retribution for ‘making waves’ – however subtle or indirect – leaves employees fearful of speaking up about ethics problems.

-> Ethics training is seen as just one more hurdle to pass rather than ethics being built into the culture of the organization. In other words, ethics are seen as simply representing yet another set of rules, undifferentiated from so many other job requirements. As a result, employees feel that with ethics, as with so many other things, everyone slips up sometimes and so, short of something extremely glaring and destructive, it is no big deal.

-> Management really doesn’t want to hear about ethics concerns because either those concerns are perceived as whining or because following-up on them gives management additional work about which they are more annoyed than truly interested.

The above concerns certainly echo what I hear when speaking to employees at all levels of companies and across a wide variety of industries. How pervasive these problems are is tough to say but the persistence with which I hear them leads me to believe that they are far more prevalent than we would all like to believe.

The bottom line, however obvious it may sound, is that regardless of how frequently or rarely these issues arise, it is everyone’s job to keep them from halting the direct addressing of ethics concerns, whether founded at the time of reporting or merely suspected. In far too many companies, however, these issues are not even noticed by management let alone addressed. That, too, is frightening as each of these issues represents an unsettling and significant potential threat to companies unless they are certain that they don’t apply to them. Unfortunately, such feelings of certainly are all-too-often based on wishful thinking rather than careful, informed, and objective observation.

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