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Workers Feel Increasingly Pressured to Compromise Ethical Standards, Says ECI

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Leadership & Transparency
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The pressure on employees to make unethical choices in work settings is on the rise. According to a survey conducted by the nonprofit Ethics and Compliance Initiative (ECI), an increasing number of employees feel pressured to “bend the rules” these days in order to safeguard their jobs.

More than 16 countries were surveyed for ECI’s 2018 report. The results were wide ranging and focused on a fairly select number of countries in the Americas, Asia and the European Union. Canada, the UK and the Scandinavian countries were among those not surveyed or that did not report results.

“In Most GBES (global business ethics survey) countries, pressure to compromise standards Is felt by more than 1 in 5 employees,” the authors wrote. Brazil presented the highest results, with 47 percent of those surveyed saying they feel pressure to compromise their ethics in the workplace. In the United States, the value was 22 percent.

The survey also looked at a number of associated concerns, such as whether workers said they observed misconduct vs. whether they would report if they observed it happening, and whether workers feared retaliation for reporting ethics violations.

In the U.S., 76 percent said they reported misconduct, compared to 37 percent in Russia. The highest value belonged to India, where 82 percent said they would report unethical behavior.

While the report did not appear to establish clear definitions for what “misconduct” would constitute in each culture (would that include perceived cultural transgressions in highly religious communities, for example?) the report did identify most-frequently observed and reported types of misconduct as being ones that many globally would associate with poor ethical choices.


  • 79 percent of misconduct reported in 2017 comprised the misuse of confidential information

  • 72 percent reported on bribes or kickbacks

  • 60 percent reported on sexual harassment

The report also offered some key takeaways:

“Where there is smoke there is fire” -- Employees are not just feeling more pressure to compromise their ethics, but are observing more ethics violations. At the same time, the authors write, the acceptance of bending the rules, or not reporting those actions, are becoming more normalized. “Sixty-three percent see such practices rewarded, fueling the likelihood that violations will appear.”

The reason why workers would not report ethics violations was interesting as well:


  • 74 percent was because they didn’t feel the report would be confidential

  • 69 percent didn’t feel it would do any good

  • 64 percent doubted they could report anonymously

  • 63 percent figured they would be branded a “snitch.”

And there may be some basis to employee fears toward reporting violations, the authors said.

The values of those who reported retaliation from managers and others correlated closely in countries where reporting misconduct were highest.

In India, the country where workers said they would most likely stand up for their values, 74 percent said they personally experienced retaliation. In the U.S., also among the highest, more than half of those that reported misconduct said they experienced retaliation.

The researchers also found that in those countries where workers most consistently reported being “punished” or singled out for their ethical whistleblowing, retailiation happened very quickly. “[Seventy-two percent] of employees who experienced retaliation said that it occurred within three weeks of their initial report,” the ECI said.

In fact, the rate of retaliation has more than doubled since 2013. Even more alarming the ECI said, the rate of retaliation and and reporting used be correlated with the rate of ethical reporting. In 2017 however, the rate of retaliation shot up, exceeding the that of reporting by 100 percent.

And the most consistent influencer the ECI said is the economy – but not in the way that we might think.

According to the ECI, ethical misconduct actually decreases in frequency as market conditions worsen. Conversely, the researchers found, misconduct increases as the economy improves. Employees feel less compelled to make risky ethical choices when market conditions aren’t as great for the company, and more inspired to compromise company standards when things are going very well.

Ethical choices: Build a strong company culture


The lead takeaway, said the ECI, is that corporate culture counts.

Companies develop ethics and compliance programs that are inclusive fare better, said the ECI. Building a corporate culture that is reinforced by performance goals at all levels of the company communicates cohesion and company values.

A toobox of tips to help businesses develop their own ethics and compliance programs can be found at its website, along with a link by which to download the report. An explanation of the methodology, which included 5,101 responses for 2017, is also available at the end of the report.

 

Flickr image: CafeCredit.com

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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