While corporate financial scandals dominate the news headlines, workers in the United States are far more likely to cite hypocrisy and favouritism as the biggest ethical problems in their workplaces.
A survey by consultants Watson Wyatt Worldwide has found that individual behaviour dominates the ethical agenda for most employees, with few people pointing to more concrete legal or financial misdeeds when asked about issues that undermine honesty and integrity at work.
"The survey holds mixed news for employers," said Watson Wyatt’s Ilene Gochman. "While most employees do not believe there are concrete ethical breaches in the workplace, some clearly feel compromised by day-to-day hypocrisy and broken promises.
"This might explain why job commitment is also down – a problem for companies as the economy picks up and job prospects brighten."
The survey of 1,200 US workers found that almost three quarters of employees believe that their immediate bosses behave with honesty and integrity. But they are somewhat less certain about top management, and even their colleagues.
When asked to elaborate on why others’ behaviour lacks honesty and integrity, workers were far more likely to cite hypocrisy and favouritism (six out of ten of those who question top management’s integrity cite this factor) than dishonest financial dealings (fewer than one in ten) or investor-related violations (a mere two per cent).
But one in ten of those questioned say that the demands of work 'almost always' or 'often' put pressure on them to do things that conflict with what they think is right and more than one in five say that this is 'sometimes' the case. Seven out of ten say this happens 'infrequently' or 'never'.
And although almost nearly two thirds of employees say that they are encouraged to pass important information – good or bad – up the line, almost two out of ten worry that someone reporting unethical behaviour would be considered a troublemaker.
"Some workers may see the relentless pressures on the job as causing them to compromise their personal standards for behaviour and performance. Couple these findings with our ongoing research on employee commitment levels and the data suggest that we could, in fact, be seeing the after-effects of restructuring and downsizing,” said Gochman.
Indeed, overall employee commitment levels have dropped since 2002. Specifically, employee responses have declined at least five per centage points with regard to pride in company, preference to remain with company, overall rating of company and satisfaction with company. Three out of ten workers surveyed also indicated they would leave their company if they could.
"These results should give employers cause for concern," said Gochman.
"One positive lever companies have at their disposal is the role of immediate bosses in the employment equation. Employees still have very positive feelings about their immediate bosses, and this is perhaps the best defence against job hopping as the economy picks up steam."