National Business Ethics Survey Shows Ethics Risk Landscape Just As Treacherous As Before Enron

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Six years after high-profile corporate scandals rocked American business, there has been little if any meaningful reduction in the enterprise-wide risk of unethical behavior at U.S. companies, according to the Ethics Resource Center's 2007 National Business Ethics Survey(R). ERC is a private, nonprofit organization whose research and advocacy focus on the advancement of high ethical standards and practices in public and private institutions.

The rate of observed misconduct has crept back above where it was in 2000. And employees' willingness to report misconduct has not improved, either.

    Interviews with almost 2,000 employees at U.S. public and private companies of all sizes for the biennial NBES(R) show disturbing shares of workers witnessing ethical misconduct at work - and tending not to report what they see. Conflicts of interest, abusive behavior and lying pose the most severe ethics risks to companies today.

The measurable lack of progress in business ethics should signal a need for company management, Boards of Directors, policy-makers, investors and consumers to reassess their approach to that challenge, said ERC President Patricia Harned, Ph.D.

"Despite new regulation and significant efforts to reduce misconduct and increase reporting when it does occur, the ethics risk landscape in American business is as treacherous as it was before implementation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002," Dr. Harned said.

Over the past year, more than half (56 percent) of employees surveyed had personally observed violations of company ethics standards, policy, or the law. Many saw multiple violations. More than two of five employees (42 percent) who witnessed misconduct did not report it through any company channels.

According to Dr. Harned, "There is a strong sense of futility and fear among employees when it comes to reporting ethical misconduct, and that increases the danger to business. More than half (54 percent) of employees who witnessed but did not report misconduct believed that reporting would not lead to corrective action. More than a third (36 percent) of non-reporters feared retaliation from at least one source; but our research shows that having a strong ethical culture virtually eliminates retaliation."

"Employees at all levels have not increased their 'ethical courage' in recent years," Dr. Harned said. "The rate of observed misconduct has crept back above where it was in 2000. And employees' willingness to report misconduct has not improved, either."

"The good news is that the rate of misconduct is cut by three-fourths at companies with strong ethical cultures, and reporting is doubled at companies with comprehensive business ethics programs," said Dr. Harned. ERC helps organizations design and measure the strength of their culture and the effectiveness of ethics programs.

The study found less than 40 percent of employees are aware of comprehensive business ethics and compliance programs at their companies. The programs are largely driven by legal and regulatory compliance, and designed in reaction to past mistakes, Dr. Harned observed. "The fact is, only about 25 percent of companies actually have a well-implemented ethics and compliance program in place, despite their transformative impact," she said.

The NBES also found most employees prefer to report misconduct to a person, especially someone with whom they already have a relationship, rather than to a company "hotline." Only 3 percent of misconduct reports were made to company hotlines.

As part of the latest National Business Ethics Survey, ERC developed The ERC Ethics Risk IndexSM. It categorizes 18 different types of misconduct by their incidence and whether they would be likely to be reported, and assigns a value to that type of misconduct. While the Index presents data in a continuum, the projected risk of various types of misconduct falls generally into three categories: severe risk (happens frequently and usually goes unreported), high risk (happens often and often goes unreported), and guarded risk (happens less frequently and may go unreported).

To download the full NBES report, go to http://www.ethics.org/download.asp?fid=91.

More About NBES

First conducted in 1994, the NBES is the national benchmark on organizational ethics - the country's most rigorous measurement of trends in workplace ethics and compliance, a snapshot of current behaviors and thinking, and a guide in identifying ethics risk and measures of program effectiveness.

The 2007 NBES is part of a larger workplace survey conducted for ERC this year; data collection was managed by the Opinion Research Corporation, with ERC establishing the survey questions and sampling methodology. A total of 3,452 employees in the business, government and nonprofit sectors were polled; responses from 1,929 individuals in the business sector have been isolated and are presented in the NBES. Survey participants were: age 18 or older; currently employed at least 20 hours per week for their primary employer; and working for an organization that employs at least two people. They were randomly selected to attain a representative national distribution. All interviews were conducted during the period June 25-August 15, 2007, via telephone; participants were assured that their individual responses to all survey questions would be confidential. The sampling error of findings presented in the report is +/- 2.2 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

For more information about Ethics Resource Center, visit http://www.ethics.org.

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