Unethical Behavior: Largely Unreported in Offices and Justified by Teens 

Many teenagers think cheating, lying or violent behavior an acceptable means to an end, accordingethics to survey

By James Hyatt

Unethical behavior persists, and is even condoned under some circumstances, according to two separate surveys of workplace behavior and of teenage attitudes.

In the workplace 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 the Ethics Resource Center’s 2007 National Business Ethics Survey.

The findings reflected interviews with almost 2,000 employees at U.S. public and private companies of all sizes.

"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," said ERC President Patricia Harned.

And among teenagers who consider themselves “ethically prepared,” nearly 40 percent say it is sometimes necessary to cheat, plagiarize, lie or even behave violently in order to succeed, reported the fifth annual Junior Achievement/Deloitte Teen Ethics Survey.

Pressure to succeed in school seems to be driving many teens’ opinions that unethical behavior is an acceptable means to an end, the report summary said. “Of the teens who think plagiarism is acceptable on some level, 37 percent think a personal desire to succeed is justification. And that number climbs to 51 percent among students who feel overwhelming pressure to succeed.

Both studies, in general, concluded that more needs to be done to emphasize the consequences of unethical behavior.

According to 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."

She added: "Employees at all levels have not increased their 'ethical courage' in recent years. 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 ethics programs.”

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 ethics and compliance programs at their companies. The programs are largely driven by legal and regulatory compliance, and designed in reaction to past mistakes. "The fact is, only about 25 percent of companies actually have a well-implemented ethics and compliance program in place, despite their transformative impact," Dr. Harned 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 three percent of misconduct reports were made to company hotlines.

Among other findings:

  • Conflicts of interest (employees putting their own interest above their company's), lying to employees and abusive or intimidating behavior posed severe risk to companies in 2007.
  • Companies faced high risk in several areas, including: Internet abuse; misreporting work time; lying to customers, vendors and the public; and discrimination.
  • In general, the risks associated with abusive behavior and lying to stakeholders appear to rise with the number of company employees.

The Junior Achievement survey found “particularly alarming” its finding that 23 percent of teens surveyed think violence toward another person is acceptable on some level, including for settling an argument and revenge.

"The high percentages of teenagers who freely admit that unethical behavior can be justified is alarming,” said David Miller, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Assistant Professor (Adjunct) of Business Ethics, who reviewed the findings. “It suggests an attitude of ethical relativism and rationalization of whatever actions serve one's immediate needs and purposes.

“This way of thinking will inevitably lead to unethical if not illegal actions that will damage individual lives and ruin corporate reputations,” he said.

The survey also found that teens have difficulty in understanding that unethical behavior transcends the boundaries between private life, school or work life, and online behavior. More than a quarter (27 percent) of all teens surveyed said it is not fair for an employer to suspend or fire employees for unethical behavior outside of their jobs and another quarter (26 percent) said they weren’t sure if it was fair or not.