Great Research (And Some Good News) From The Ethics Resource Center

The Ethics Resource Center has released this year's study of ethics in the workplace. It is no surprise that, as usual, it appears to have been an extremely well done piece of research. It is a surprise, and a pleasant one, that their findings show some unexpected positive progress in workplace ethics in the last year or two.

As usual, they mine their data well and their commentary deserves close attention. (In other words, the summary I'll provide here is really just the tip of an iceberg well worth exploring in depth if you have an interest in the state of corporate ethics in the U.S.) That said, here are some of the key findings, primarily as summarized in their executive summary…

Based on 2009 interviews with 2852 employees in the U.S. private sector, changes observed over the last two years include:

1. Seven percent fewer employees observed misconduct in the workplace.

2. Five percent more employees reported misconduct once observed.

3. Two percent fewer employees felt pressure to engage in misconduct.

4. (The one significant negative finding.) Three precent more employees perceived that they were retaliated against in some manner because of their having reported misconduct.

Again, these are simply a summary of their key findings and a thorough reading of the study provides a great deal more depth. 

Among their warnings? That these findings may well represent a transient improvement and that companies need to pay close attention to passive or active pressures to return to 'business as usual' (i.e. a reversal – or worse – of the current findings.)

Among my warnings? It's great that these overall improvements have been reported. However, let's all remember that the above findings are relative to past findings and that many of the numbers, outside of that context, remain dismal at best. For example, in the ERC's sample, only 26% of employees perceived their top management's transparency to be "strongly open and informative", only 41% felt that all management levels in their organization were "strongly accountable", and in the ERC's extensive list of specific forms of misconduct observed by percentages of the workforce, few significant changes appear to have been made in the last two years. (Although, thankfully, most of the changes were in a positive direction, all but a few were only one or two percentage points different and it is not clear whether or not those changes, however positive looking, are actually statistically significant.) 

As always, the ERC is to be commended on their great work of which these reports are but one component. Also as always, however, we need to stay well aware that even the positive changes shown by the current study are less heartening than we might like and that they may be entirely transient if we don't continue to work to improve both private and public sector sector ethics, not just in the U.S. but worldwide.

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