Workplace Misconduct at Historic Low, Ethics Resource Center Report Reveals

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By Caryn Freeman  

Feb. 5 --Workplace misconduct is on the decline, according to a survey released Feb. 4 by the Ethics Resource Center, which found that 41 percent of employees observed misconduct in 2013, down from 55 percent in 2007.

Moreover, the eighth “National Business Ethics Survey,” which polled 6,400 U.S. employees, found that only 9 percent of employees felt pressure to compromise their standards in 2013, down from 13 percent in the previous survey in 2011.

“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,” ERC Chairman Michael G. Oxley said in a Feb. 4 press release. As a Republican House member, Oxley was co-sponsor of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the landmark whistle-blower protection statute enacted in 2002.

Culture Affects Ethics

According to the survey, the percentage of companies with a “strong” or “strong-leaning” ethics culture increased to 66 percent in 2013 from 60 percent in 2011. A greater percentage of companies provided ethics training in 2013 (81 percent) than in 2011 (74 percent), and 67 percent of companies are now including ethical conduct as a performance measure in employee evaluations, up from 60 percent in 2011, the survey said.

ERC President Patricia J. Harned believes the findings suggest a link between fewer instances of misconduct and ethics training and a strong corporate culture. “We found that when a company has a weak culture, it is more likely to have frequent incidents of misconduct versus rogue incidents in a company that has a stronger culture,” she said in the press release.

Harned also suggested that the recession has mitigated employee 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,” she said. “A key question for the future is what happens to misconduct rates when economic growth becomes more robust and widespread.”

HR Can Advance Ethics

Moira McGinty Klos, senior vice president at the ERC, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 5 that human resources professionals are uniquely suited to advance a company's ethics program and foster an ethical workplace.


“A key question for the future is what happens to misconduct rates when economic growth becomes more robust and widespread,” said ERC President Patricia J. Harned.  

“Employee evaluations; promotions; and activities related to counseling, discipline and terminations are HR responsibilities,” she said. “HR professionals are perfectly positioned to ensure that each one of these areas is an opportunity to promote the company's values, and as a result, promote and improve ethics in the workplace.”

More Misconduct at the Top

The survey found that ethical lapses were more common at the upper levels of a company. It noted that 60 percent of misconduct in 2013 was committed by managers and that senior managers are more likely than lower-level managers to break rules. The survey found that senior managers commit 24 percent of observed rule breaking, middle managers were identified 19 percent of the time and first-line supervisors were identified 17 percent of the time.

According to the survey, 21 percent of workers who reported misconduct said they suffered some form of retribution as a result. At the same time, about one-third (34 percent) of those who declined to report misconduct said they feared retribution from senior leadership, while 30 percent of respondents reported concerns about retaliation from a supervisor and 24 percent reported they were concerned about their co-workers' reactions.

Klos said some companies have implemented programs to help curb fear of retaliation where HR, as a neutral party, reaches out to every employee who reports misconduct. “HR's role in these situations is to stay in touch with the person and ensure that they are not experiencing or perceiving retaliatory behavior,” she said. “If the employee raises a concern, HR is in the unique position to help to deal with the situation and clarify any misunderstandings before they get out of hand.”


To contact the reporter on this story: Caryn Freeman in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at

The survey is available at



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