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Declining Ethics in the Workplace and the Rise of Retaliation Charges: Is There a Connection?

The Ethics Resource Center, a non-profit organization that focuses on the research and development of high ethical standards in private and public institutions, has released the results of its new study of ethical standards in the workplace. The numbers reveal a troubling shift.

In particular, the study found that the number of employees who witnessed violations of laws or ethics in their workplaces during the past two years was 45 percent. As expected, actual reports of the witnessed misconduct were also high at 65 percent.

The study found a record number of retaliation charges as well. The survey found that more than one in five employees experienced retaliation after reporting workplace misconduct.

Research by the Ethics Resource Center also found that a decreasing number of employees feel their senior executives are interested in supporting an ethical workplace. Only 62 percent of employees, a number that is down from 68 percent in 2009, have confidence in their leadership. Similarly, 34 percent of employees claim that their immediate supervisors do not behave ethically - an increase of 10 percent from 2009.

When asked about their own abilities to handle ethical issues, 77 percent of employees said they are prepared to deal with tough ethical situations. This percentage fell from 86 percent in 2009.

Overall, the number of employers with a weak ethical culture has reached 42 percent, an all-time high since 2000. "Nearly half of workers witness misconduct, survey finds," (Jan. 6, 2012).

Commentary and Checklist

The reasons for the decline in workplace ethics are up for debate. A few reasons offered for decreased ethics in the workplace include publicized corruption in the financial sector, corruption in government, and a reduced focus on belt-tightening in recent months - all of which may encourage more risky behavior.

Whatever the reasons, the statistics should alarm employers.

Creating an ethical culture in the workplace starts at the top. Maintaining that culture depends on the safety and effectiveness of reporting procedures, investigations and follow-up. But when employees believe their leaders are corrupt, they will fear retaliation and that same fear will keep them from ever reporting wrongdoing.

With retaliation claims leading the charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers cannot ignore employees' perceptions. Workers' beliefs, whether based on reality or perception, only support the proposition that costly retaliation claims will continue to rise as ethical standards decrease.

Employers must implement and then regularly revisit ethics policies. Training is key so that employers can communicate to the entire workforce that ethics are a priority for all employees from the top down.

The study results set out in the source article drive home the importance of establishing an incident-reporting procedure where employees are informed about how to manage ethical situations and safe reporting avenues. To stop unethical behavior in its tracks, employees must be unafraid to report misconduct.

If at all possible, when a report of misconduct is made, utilize a third-party investigator who is not involved in the workplace. This gives employees a comfortable avenue to report any suspicion of wrongdoing openly and without fear of retaliation. Even further, employees should understand that reporting bad behavior is a necessary duty of employment.

Here are some additional tips for creating a safe and effective reporting policy:
  • Write an ethics code whereby employees have a duty to report wrongdoing when they have reasonable suspicion that it has or is occurring.
  • Allow for anonymous reporting so long as the reporting mechanism makes it clear that fraudulent reports are not tolerated and that enough information is needed to investigate the report.
  • Have trained investigators ready to investigate claims on a moment's notice.
  • Create an incident management team to oversee the management of incidents in your organization.
  • When unethical behavior is discovered and worthy of some form of discipline, make certain that your discipline is consistent with past disciplinary actions taken.
  • Make certain that any employee who makes a good faith report of wrongdoing is protected from retaliation for making the report.
  • Consider involving outside counsel when establishing an incident reporting system and with decisions regarding discipline.
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