by Michael Connor

The good news is that on-the-job misconduct by American workers may be at an all-time low, and when misconduct is detected it’s likely to be reported by co-workers.

The bad news is that whistle-blowers are being retaliated against for their truth-telling at a “shocking” rate – suggesting a “looming ethics downturn” for U.S. businesses.

Those are the primary conclusions of the seventh National Business Ethics Survey (NBES) conducted by the Ethics Resource Center, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization.  The bi-annual report is based on telephone and web responses from 4,683 employees of for-profit organizations during September 2011.

The percentage of employees who witnessed misconduct at work fell to a new low of 45 percent last year, according to the survey, compared with 49 percent in 2009 and a record high of 55 percent in 2007. The leading types of misconduct cited were misuse of company time (33%), abusive behavior (21%), lying to employees (20%), company resource abuse (20%) and violating company Internet use policies (16%).

And those who reported the bad behavior they saw reached a record high of 65 percent, up from 63 percent two years earlier and 12 percentage points higher than the record low of 53 percent in 2005, according to the survey.

However, while reporting was up, the survey found that retaliation against whistle-blowers hit “alarming levels,” with more than one in five (22 percent) experiencing some form of retaliation in return.  That compares with reported retaliation by 12 percent in 2007and 15 percent in 2009.

According to the survey, these were most common forms of retaliation:

NBES_Retaliation

Source: Ethics Resource Center – 2011 National Business Ethics Survey

In addition, the survey found, the percentage of employees “who perceived pressure to compromise standards in order to do their jobs” climbed five points to 13 percent, just shy of the all-time high of 14 percent in 2000.

“While most U.S. workers are currently ‘doing the right thing’ by following company standards and reporting wrongdoing when they see it, we see trouble ahead,” said ERC President Patricia J. Harned, Ph.D. “Retaliation against whistleblowers and pressure on employees to compromise their ethics standards are at or near all-time highs. These are factors that historically indicate that American business may be on the cusp of a large downward shift in ethical conduct.”

“The data make a very clear case that if business leaders will take heed of these findings and make ethics a business priority, they can have a dramatic impact on the conduct of their workforce. Risks noted in this report can be mitigated,” said Dr. Harned and former Congressman Michael Oxley, now chair of the ERC board, in introducing the survey findings.

Economy and Social Media

To help explain the “co-existence of widespread retaliation and pressure with historically low mis­conduct and high reporting,” the NBES cited two factors: the sluggish U.S. economy and employees who use social media while on the job.

“Thirty percent of employees agree that bad actors in their company are laying low because of fears about the recession,” the survey reported. “As the economy gets better – and companies and employees become more optimistic about their financial futures – it seems likely that misconduct will rise and reporting will drop, mirroring the growth in pressure and retaliation that have already taken place and conforming to historic patterns.”

As for social networkers, the Center found that 11% of the respondents identified themselves as “active social networkers”– meaning they spent 30% or more of their workday on social networks, even though that was not part of their job – while another 29% of workers devoted at least 10% to 20% of their workday to social networking. A surprising finding to the survey analysts: more than half (51%) of the social networkers identified themselves as “top or middle management.”

The survey reported: “A surprising and worrisome divide exists within the workplace between employ­ees who spend substantial time on social networks and those who do not. Active social networkers report far more negative experiences in their workplaces. As a group, they are much more likely to experience pressure to compromise ethics standards and to experi­ence retaliation for reporting misconduct than co-workers who are less involved with social networking.”

However, the survey found, active social networkers also “show a higher tolerance for certain activities that could be considered questionable.”  Among active social networkers, for example, 50 percent said it is ac­ceptable to keep copies of confidential work documents in case they need them in their next job, compared to only 15 percent of their colleagues. And 46 percent of social networkers said it is acceptable to take work software home to use on a personal computer, compared to only 7 percent of their colleagues.