Strengthen Your Work(place) Ethic

New findings from the Ethics Resource Center suggest that overall workplace misconduct is on the decline, while other findings suggest there is room for improvement. Here are some tips for toning up your association’s ethical culture.

Good news for employees and employers in the United States. Workplace misconduct is at a historic low, according to the Ethics Resource Center.

ERC’s 2013 “National Business Ethics Survey” (NBES), which surveyed more than 6,400 private-sector workers, found that workplace misconduct has steadily declined since 2007, when it hit a record high. Last year, 41 percent of private-sector workers reported witnessing misconduct at work compared to 55 percent in 2007.

Companies are doing a better job of holding workers accountable, imposing discipline for misconduct, and letting it be known that bad behavior is being punished.

“The dip in misconduct may reflect workers’ tendency to take fewer risks when economic prospects seem weak or uncertain, given the relatively soft recovery since 2008,” according to the report. “But it also is possible—and we believe probable—that businesses’ continuing and growing commitment to strong ethics and compliance programs is bearing fruit and that ethical performance is becoming a new norm in many workplaces.”

The report found that between 2011 and 2013, the percentage of companies offering ethics training increased from 74 percent to 81 percent. There was also a 12 percent increase over the same timeframe in the number of companies using ethical conduct as an employee-performance measure.

“Companies are doing a better job of holding workers accountable, imposing discipline for misconduct, and letting it be known that bad behavior is being punished,” the report noted.

Instilling an ethical culture can start as early as the hiring process.

“It starts right away during the interview,” Stacy Tetschner, CAE, CEO of the National Speakers Association, told Associations Now. “It is important to be up front with prospective employees about the culture and values of the organization to be sure there is a good fit. Their first impressions of you are just as important as yours are of them. They need to know what your association stands for and will not tolerate. And more importantly, if they are hired, you then need to show them that you walk the talk you gave them during the interview.”

The findings coming out of the latest EBES weren’t all good, though. For example, the rate of retaliation remains high, at 21 percent—this equates to six million workers who reported experiencing some type of retribution for filing a report about misconduct at work last year. ERC stated in the report that reducing the rate of retaliation is one of the biggest challenges organizations face because, as one might guess, the more workers fear reporting misconduct, the less likely they are to do so.

The rate of reporting misconduct also stalled in 2013 after growing in previous years. More than one out of every three people choose not to report misconduct they witness.

Another somewhat startling finding from the report is that amount of misconduct committed by management. Respondents reported 60 percent of the misconduct they witnessed involved an individual with managerial authority.

“If allowed to persist, rule-breaking by managers bodes ill for ethics cultures, because managers set the tone for everyone else,” Patricia Harned, ERC president, wrote in the report.

This same thought was echoed in a recent Associations Now blog post by nonprofit and association management professional Lori Porter, MBA, IOM, CAE.

“An organization’s ethical climate is important because it can improve employee morale, enrich organizational commitment, and foster an involved and retained workforce,” Porter wrote. “Organizational ethics are primarily driven not by policies and procedures but by the actions of its leaders. Good leaders model the ethics they’d like to see reflected throughout the organization. If staff members see a leader being less than truthful and honest in business dealings, then they may believe that they can conduct themselves in the same way.”

One way to ensure your association is fostering a top-down ethical culture is to “audit” your ethics.

“To borrow from a definition of ‘audit’ published by the Southbank Institute of Technology, an ethics audit is simply a systematic, independent, and documented process for obtaining evidence regarding the status of an association’s ethical culture,” Jennifer Baker, CAE, director, ASAE Business Services, Inc., and Janice Dahl, CAE, president and CEO of Anchor Management Group, LLC, wrote in Associations Now. “It’s taking a closer look at the subtext instead of just allowing it to remain unexamined.”

Baker and Dahl added that association staff at all levels should understand that a strong ethical culture plays a key role in an organization’s ability to fulfill its mission.

“Association managers must appreciate the evergreen nature of ethics and approach the topic with enthusiasm despite how daunting the commitment to creating and maintaining an ethical culture may seem,” they wrote. “Whether through formal audits or other means, they must continually challenge themselves and their staffs to know the boundaries between legal and ethical responsibilities and think about where good management ends and ethical management begins.”

How does your association establish an ethical workplace culture? Let us know in the comments.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!