Despite the number of corporate whistleblowers being at an all-time high, new research shows the presence of a culture that promotes ethical behavior in workplaces is at its lowest point in the last decade.
A new study from the Ethics Resource Center reveals that over the past two years, 45 percent of U.S. employees observed a violation of the law or ethics at work. The use of social media appears to be contributing to the problem, according to new research.
While reporting of the wrongdoing was at an all-time high, so too was the backlash against those employees who blew the whistle, the research revealed. More than 1 in 5 employees who reported misconduct experienced some form of retaliation, which ERC President Patricia J. Harned said spells trouble.
"Retaliation against whistleblowers and pressure on employees to compromise their ethics standards are at or near all-time highs," Harned said. "These are factors that historically indicate that American business may be on the cusp of a large downward shift in ethical conduct."
Overall, the strength of corporate ethics cultures is at its weakest since 2000, the report said.
The percentage of businesses with weak ethical cultures, 42 percent, is at the highest level since 2000, which the ERC attributes to improving national economic conditions.
According to the research, ethical behavior slides during periods of strong economic growth because the improved conditions and reduced focus on cost-cutting measures makes employees less fearful of violating ethics rules.
The report shows that the proliferation of social media in the workplace is contributing to the ethical slide in many businesses. Active social networkers are far more likely to experience pressure to compromise standards and to experience retaliation for reporting misconduct than co-workers who are less involved with social networking, according to the study.
In addition, active users of social networks are much more likely to accept behaviors that have traditionally been considered questionable, such as keeping copies of confidential work documents for use in a future job, personal use of the company credit card and taking home company software.
"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," Harned said.
The relaxed ethical climate is starting at the top, the research shows, with one-third of employees saying their managers display unethical behavior, up from 24 percent in 2009 and the highest percentage ever.
The study also discovered employees are less confident in their own ability to handle ethics situations.
"An ethical culture cannot be built without the full commitment of senior executives and company directors," Harned said. "Business leaders must remain diligent and continue to incorporate ethics and compliance programs into every part of their organizations."
The 2011 National Business Ethics Survey is the seventh in a series of reports that began in 1994. This year's research was based on surveys of 4,800 U.S. employees.