New Research: 2011 National Business Ethics Survey

January 5, 2012


Latest National Business Ethics Survey Reveals Looming Ethics Downturn in Corporate America

ARLINGTON, Va.—Jan. 5, 2012—As we begin 2012, new research from the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) reveals that over the past two years, 45 percent of U.S. employees observed a violation of the law or ethics standards at their places of employment. Reporting of this wrongdoing was at all-time high – 65 percent – but so too was retaliation against employees who blew the whistle: more than one in five employees who reported misconduct they saw experienced some form of retaliation in return. According to the seventh National Business Ethics Survey® (NBES): Workplace Ethics in Transition, ethics cultures in business are also at their weakest point since 2000. 

The free ERC report can be downloaded at

“While most U.S. workers are currently ‘doing the right thing’ by following company standards and reporting wrongdoing when they see it, we see trouble ahead,” said ERC President Patricia J. Harned, Ph.D. “Retaliation against whistleblowers and pressure on employees to compromise their ethics standards are at or near all-time highs. These are factors that historically indicate that American business may be on the cusp of a large downward shift in ethical conduct.”

Strength of Ethical Business Cultures Near Record Lows as Employees Lose Confidence in Top Managers and Supervisors
The strength of corporate ethics cultures are also at their weakest in a decade. As companies with weak ethics cultures experience increased levels of employee misconduct, the newest NBES reveals some disturbing trends.

The percentage of businesses with weak ethical cultures, 42 percent, is at the highest level since 2000: a seven-percentage point gain from 2009 and a reflection of improving national economic conditions. With a reported reduced focus on corporate belt-tightening and cost cutting measures, it appears that much of the “fear” around violating company rules and regulations has been removed, encouraging some employees to engage in risky behavior.

Creating an ethical culture begins at the top, and employees are saying that senior executives seem less concerned about upholding high standards of integrity. Confidence in senior leadership fell to 62 percent, matching the historic low established in 2000 and down six percentage points from 2009. Far fewer employees believe their direct supervisors act as ethical leaders: one third of employees (34 percent) say their managers do not display ethical behavior, up from 24 percent in 2009 and the highest percentage ever.

In another sign of weakening cultures, employees are less confident in their own ability to handle ethics situations. The percentage of employees who say they are prepared to handle situations that invite misconduct fell from 86 percent in 2009 to 77 percent in 2011.

Lingering Recession Concerns Continue to Impact Ethical Behavior

For many Americans, the economy in 2011 seems only slightly better than during the recession. Growth is sluggish, the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, and fear of a second recession fosters continued anxiety. NBES continues to show that companies behave differently during economic difficulties.  However, there is a mixed picture on the economy.  U.S. workers report seeing signs of recovery, but feeling anxious.  The economic results include:
  • More than three quarters of employees (78 percent) say their company has taken at least one economic “recovery measure,” such as new hiring or restoring salaries.
  • Fewer employees feel optimistic about their company’s financial future.
  • Seventy-one percent voiced confidence in 2011, down from 77 percent two years before.
  • More than half (53 percent) say there is less room for mistakes in their company because of the recession.
  • Businesses are taking fewer risks (44 percent say risk-taking is down).

It is perhaps ironic, but ethics indicators turn upwards and workplace conduct improves when the economy declines. Conversely, ethical behavior slides during periods of strong economic growth: improved economic conditions and reduced focus on cost cutting measures takes much of the “fear” out of violating ethics rules.  An unclear economic picture could be part of the reason why the NBES numbers are so unique from what we’ve seen in previous surveys.  

“While the improved economy is good news for American businesses, the decreased focus by executives on fostering ethical cultures could lead to a new surge in corporate misconduct,” said Dr. Harned. “An ethical culture cannot be built without the full commitment of senior executives and company directors. Business leaders must remain diligent and continue to incorporate ethics and compliance programs into every part of their organizations.”

Many businesses already seem less concerned about toeing the line on ethics, and as a result, some employees will return to risky behaviors.

Social Networkers: Ethical Change Agents?
As active social networkers – those employees who spend at least 30 percent of their workdays on social networks – proliferate the workplace, the dynamic of business ethics is shifting. The NBES reveals that a surprising and worrisome divide in ethical workplace experiences exists between employees who spend substantial time on social networks, and those who do not. 

Active social networkers are far more likely to experience pressure to compromise standards (42 percent vs. 11 percent) and to experience retaliation for reporting misconduct (56 percent vs. 18 percent) than co-workers who are less involved with social networking. Active users of social networks are much more likely than non-networking colleagues to accept behaviors that have traditionally been considered to be “questionable” or marginal behaviors (e.g., keeping copies of confidential work documents for use in a future job, personal use of the company credit card, taking home company software). Also, many active social networkers indicated a willingness to share less than flattering information about their workplace and colleagues. 

“It appears that as people become more accustomed to sharing information that was once considered ‘private’ across social networks, the tolerance level for questionable behavior in the workplace has increased,” said Dr. Harned. “ERC will continue to monitor behaviors of those who actively use social networking to determine how these individuals impact the broader ethical cultures of their places of employment.”

Upcoming NBES Reports to Further Explore Workplace Trends
Over the next several months, ERC will release a number of supplemental reports that take a closer look at the specific trends that impact workplace ethics. Upcoming reports include Social Networkers in the Workplace; Software Piracy; Employee Reporting; Employee Retaliation; and Generational DifferencesLearn more about the supplemental reports.

Industry Reactions to NBES Results
The NBES was made possible by corporate sponsors who generously donated to the ERC specifically to conduct the survey. Those donors include: Walmart, Northrop Grumman, Altria, BP, PWC, United Technologies, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, BAE Systems, Southern Company, Aetna, SAIC, and NASDAQ.

Below are comments from some of the sponsor companies about NBES findings:

“The results from this year’s National Business Ethics Survey provide valuable information for ethics officers and executives. The ERC’s findings reinforce the need for corporations to promote a culture of compliance, where employees are encouraged to do what it takes to do their job right and to raise compliance concerns without fear of retaliation.”
- Thomas Young, Chief Compliance Officer, Aetna


“Altria is pleased to support the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey. The NBES findings and the Ethics Resource Center’s supplemental reports are excellent resources organizations can use to strengthen their cultures of ethics and compliance.” - Marty Barrington, Vice Chairman and Chief Compliance Officer, Altria Group, Inc

“Each version of the National Business Ethics Survey yields new insights that are useful to business leaders.  The findings in 2011 are troubling, particularly with regard to employees’ increased concerns about pressure and retaliation.  Yet, it is encouraging to see that the steps businesses take to implement strong ethics programs do, in fact, make a difference.” - Tom McCormick, Group Compliance & Ethics Officer, BP

“Northrop Grumman is pleased to sponsor the National Business Ethics Survey and fully supports the survey and its importance in understanding the ethical environment in business today. Now, more than ever, ethics is critical to the success of American companies and continuing to stress that importance as we move forward. We are honored to support the Ethics Resource Center and thank them for the invaluable work they perform.”
- Sandra Evers-Manly, Vice President, Corporate Responsibility, Northrop Grumman


“ERC’s surveys provide excellent measures of trends, and ERC’s research reveals the stories behind the numbers. NBES data helped us to strengthen our programs and fine-tune the employee appraisal process. As with everything else in our business, people ultimately make the difference.”
- Michael A. Monts, Vice President, Business Practices, United Technologies Corporation


“The ERC NBES confirms the value of strong ethics programs. The survey indicates that employees are conducting themselves more ethically. The NBES also serves to remind us that a strong commitment to a culture that encourages raising issues internally, and early, is essential to reducing operational risk. Year over year, this kind of research helps practitioners identify trends and adjust our ethics education and awareness programs, so that we can be proactive and keep things trending ethically in the right direction.” - Patricia Ellis, Vice President, Business Ethics and Compliance, Raytheon Company

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About the Ethics Resource Center
The Ethics Resource Center (ERC) is America’s oldest nonprofit organization devoted to independent research and the advancement of high ethical standards and practices in public and private institutions. Since 1922, ERC has been a resource for public and private institutions committed to a strong ethical culture. ERC’s expertise informs the public dialogue on ethics and ethical behavior. ERC researchers analyze current and emerging issues and produce new ideas and benchmarks that matter — for the public trust.

© 2012, Ethics Resource Center

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