A survey released in early February by the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) found a drop in workplace misconduct in the United States . According to the 2013 National Business Ethics Survey (NBES), 41 percent of employees observed workplace misconduct, down from 55 percent in 2007. The survey asked participants about 28 types of workplace misconduct, including abusive behavior, discrimination, lying and sexual harassment. Additionally, the study found that 9 percent of employees felt pressure to compromise their ethical standards, compared to 13 percent in 2011. This was the eighth installment of the NBES.
The results of the survey may be associated with an increasing number of corporate cultures built around ethics. The survey found that 6 percent more companies were rated with a “strong” ethics culture than in 2011 (66 percent vs. 60 percent), and more companies provided ethics training across the same period (81 percent vs. 74 percent). Michael G. Oxley, former Congressman and ERC Chairman, stated that, “the results of the survey are encouraging and show that companies are doing a better job of holding workers accountable, imposing discipline for misconduct, and letting it be known publicly that bad behavior will be punished.” 
The survey reveals clues for how companies can reduce misconduct. “We found that when a company has a weak culture, it is more likely to have frequent incidents of misconduct vs. rogue incidents in a company that has a stronger culture,” said ERC President Dr. Patricia J. Harned. She also believes that the recession may have played a role in reducing workplace misconduct. “It seems likely that the severity of the recession and the relatively soft recovery have taken a toll on workers’ confidence and tempered risk-taking on the job.” In other words, workers are monitoring their professional practices more carefully due to decreased job security.
The NBES found that ethical misconduct is more common at upper corporate levels. 60 percent of reported misconduct in 2013 was committed by managers. Furthermore, senior-level managers are more likely to commit ethical violations than junior-level managers. According to the survey, lower-level managers were associated with misconduct 17 percent of the time, compared to 19 percent for middle-level and 24 percent for upper-level managers. The study also found that more than a third of respondents (34 percent) didn’t report violations out of fear of retribution, and 21 percent of employees who reported violations suffered from some kind of retribution.
The question now is how sustainable these optimistic results are. If it is true that employees are behaving more ethically because of the recession, for instance, behavior could revert to old patterns as the economy recovers. “A key question for the future is what happens to misconduct rates when economic growth becomes more robust and widespread,” said Dr. Harned. The next NBES will be conducted in 2015.
This article is part of the Winter 2014 issue of Professional Ethics Report (PER). PER, which has been in publication since 1988, reports on news and events, programs and activities, and resources related to professional ethics issues, with a particular focus on those professions whose members are engaged in scientific research and its applications.