During a time of salary freezes and other cutbacks, one might suspect that employees are looking for ways to cut corners or seek personal gain at the expense of others, but surprisingly, the opposite is true. Only 8 percent of respondents perceived pressure to commit an ethics violation, which is down from 10 percent two years ago, according to the 2009 National Business Ethics Survey conducted by the Ethics Resource Center (ERC). These findings were in spite of the fact that 78 percent of participants reported that they or a colleague had been affected by company efforts to weather the U.S. recession.
A big part of why employees were less likely to cut corners had to do with the fact that many of them did not want to take big risks that would endanger their jobs because of the tough hiring environment, according to Pat Harned, president of ERC.
But cynicism aside, the measures of strength of an ethical culture in the workplace did improve to 62 percent, up 9 percent from when the report was published in 2007.
Harned notes that companies didn't necessarily focus on ethics specifically during the recession, but rather made their point through the overall company culture. "I think the message of ethics is so much more powerful when it comes across as the message of the business," she says.
In fact, although employees were less likely to have witnessed misconduct occurring at work (49 percent versus 56 percent in 2007), more of them were likely to report it if they did see it happening (63 percent versus 58 percent in 2007).
"One of the things we've seen over the years is that measures like misconduct and whistle-blowing are very closely tied to perceptions of culture in an organization," says Harned.
She notes that these perceptions are driven by how much leaders talk about the importance of ethics. Leaders want their employees to feel valued during a time when they might be required to make a lot of sacrifices for work and so their increased communication with employees makes employees feel as though ethics really matters.
For example, if supervisors are emphasizing that they want to hear from their employees, and if employees think their input is going to be taken seriously, then they are much more likely to report misconduct.
Harned believes that it's not necessarily because employees want to change their behavior rather than the fact that the way managers relate to their employees during the recession reinforces higher ethics standards than normal.
Another interesting finding was that retaliation against those who reported misconduct increased, though the reverse trend is usually true in that when reporting goes up, retaliation goes down.
A possible explanation from Harned is "that employees are very mindful of the fact that they don't want their job stability shaken and so, when someone raises an issue that could result in problems for them, they are more likely to retaliate."
She notes that the biggest implication of the study is that organizations should be mindful that they are currently experiencing an ethics bubble and workplace behavior could decline as the recession eases.