Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Ethics, Individual Misconduct and Organizational Culture

Ethics* are rules for conduct or behavior.  They are basically a social (as opposed to an individual or psychological) construct and part of group or organizational culture.  They can be very specific do’s and don’ts or more general guidelines for behavior.

The Ethics Resource Center (ERC) conducts and publishes regular employee surveys on the degree of non-compliance with workplace ethics in the United States.  The surveys focus on instances of misconduct observed by workers—what occurred, who did it, who reported it (if anyone) and what happened to the reporter. 

The survey uses a random sample of employees in the for-profit sector.  The 2013 survey** ended up with over 6,000 useable responses.  There is no indication how many respondents, if any, work in the commercial nuclear industry.

The overall findings are interesting.  On the positive side, “Observed misconduct*** is down for the third report in a row and is now at a historic low; the decline in misconduct is widespread; and the percentage of workers who said they felt pressure to compromise standards also fell substantially.” (p.12)

But problems persist.  “Workers reported that 60 percent of misconduct involved someone with managerial authority from the supervisory level up to top management.  Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of observed misdeeds involved senior managers.  Perhaps equally troubling, workers said that 26 percent of misconduct is ongoing within their organization.  About 12 percent of wrongdoing was reported to take place company-wide.” (ibid.)

The reporting of misconduct problems has both good and bad news.  Lots of workers (63%) who observed misconduct reported it but 21% of those who reported misconduct said they experienced retaliation**** in return. (p. 13)

The report goes on to examine the details behind the summary results and attempts to assign some possible causes to explain observed trends.  For example, the authors believe it’s probable that positive trends are related to companies’ ethics and compliance programs that create new norms for worker conduct, i.e., a stronger culture. (p. 16)  And a stronger culture is desirable.  Returning to the survey, “In 2013, one in five workers (20 percent) reported seeing misconduct in companies where cultures are “strong” compared to 88 percent who witnessed wrongdoing in companies with the weakest cultures.” (p. 18)

The keys to building a stronger ethical culture are familiar to Safetymatters readers: top-level role models, and support by immediate supervisors and peers to do the right thing.  In terms of cultural artifacts, a stronger ethical culture is visible in an organization’s processes for training, personnel evaluation and application of employee discipline. 

The report goes on to analyze misconduct in depth—who is doing it, what are they doing and how long it has been going on.  The authors cover how and why employees report misconduct and suggest ways to increase the reporting rate.  They note that increased legal protection for whistleblowers has increased the likelihood that covered workers will report misconduct.

Our Perspective

This report is worth a read.  Quite frankly, more workers are willing to report misconduct than I would have predicted.  The percentage of reporters who perceive retaliation is disappointing but hardly surprising.

The survey results are more interesting than the explanatory analysis; a reader should keep in mind that this research was conducted by a group that has a vested self-interest in finding the "correct" answers. 

Because specific firms and industries are not identified, it’s easy to blow off the results with a flip “Didn’t happen here and can’t happen here because we have a robust SCWE and ECP.”  I suggest such parochial reviewers keep in mind that “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall..”*****

*  Ethics and morals are often used interchangeably but it’s helpful to consider morals as an individual construct, a person’s inner principles of right and wrong.  See diffen.com for a more detailed comparison.

**  Ethics Resource Center, “2013 National Business Ethics Survey of the U.S. Workforce” (Arlington, VA: 2014).  Corporate sponsors include firms familiar to nuclear industry participants, e.g., Bechtel and Edison International.

***  The survey identified 28 specific types of misconduct.  Some of interest to the nuclear industry, listed in the order of frequency of occurrence in the survey responses, include abusive behavior or behavior that creates a hostile work environment, lying to employees, discriminating against employees, violations of health or safety regulations, lying to the public, retaliation against someone who has reported misconduct, abusing substances at work, sexual harassment, violation of environmental regulations and falsifying books and/or records. (pp. 41-42)

****  The survey also identified 13 specific types of retaliation experienced by whistleblowers including being ignored or treated differently by supervisors or other employees, being excluded from decisions, verbal abuse, not receiving promotions or raises, reduced hours or pay, relocation or reassignment, harassment at home or online and physical harm to one’s person or property. (p. 45)

*****  Proverbs 16:18, Bible (English Standard Version).


  1. • Involvement of Chilling Effects

    An inescapable fact is that when wrongfully harmful conditions, behaviors, actions, and inactions were not reported by insiders the insiders knowing about them were deterred by chilling effects. These chilling effects are part of the indirect causation.

  2. Most harmful events involve ethics.


    The above is a link to an article on Davis-Besse.

    Do you have a link to a comparable article on Fukushima?

    OBTW: Comments on the linked article are welcome.


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