A national survey of ethics in the workplace has found that a third of all workers observe misconduct and abuse in their jobs, but that half of them don't report the misconduct for fear of being labeled a "troublemaker."
The findings come at a time when most U.S. businesses have adopted ethics training programs or ethical codes of conduct.
But the survey of 1,500 workers, conducted by the Ethics Resource Center in Washington and released yesterday, found that one in three workers said they regularly observe managers or co-workers lying, withholding information, abusing or discriminating against employees. One in eight said they feel pressure to compromise their company's ethical standards.
Ethical lapses were worse among longer-tenured employees, at larger companies (those with 500 or more employees) and at companies in transition, such as those in the process of merging or restructuring.
"It is profoundly disturbing that many employees still feel pressured to abandon ethical values to boost business," said Michael Daigneault, president of the not-for-profit ethics research and consulting group, which has been promoting corporate ethics since the early 1980s.
Ninety percent of those surveyed said they want their companies to be concerned with more than just profits, and most said their job satisfaction was higher when their employer tried to do what was right and not only what was profitable.
Observers say the lesson for companies is: Do what's right and the profits will come via worker loyalty and longevity.
"In the competition to attract and retain employees, organizations will have to pay attention to the ethical concerns of their potential and present employees," said George G. Brenkert, director of business ethics at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and editor of Business Ethics Quarterly.
The Ethics Resource Center conducted a similar survey in 1994, which found one in three people felt pressured to engage in misconduct in the pursuit of profit. And in 1997, the center partnered with the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va., to survey 747 human resource professionals. That survey found that nearly 50 percent had compromised ethical standards - from theft to office crimes to falsifying reports - because of financial pressures or overly aggressive business objectives.
The current survey shows that some things have improved since 1994: Fewer people feel pressure to compromise their ethics, and 80 percent of companies now have ethics programs, up from 60 percent.
But Daigneault said at a new conference that "simply having a code of ethics is not enough.
"The reality is that too many organizations simply print, post and pray when it comes to ethics standards," he said.