A new survey done for the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based staffing company Spherion Corp. shows that 34 percent of workers say they have seen unethical behavior in the workplace. In addition, less than half of workers say they are likely to report ethical lapses or unethical behavior in their companies.
This means the chief executive may be the last to know. As the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out, and if the CEO only hears about a fraction of the problems in the company, there is bound to be a lot of garbage.
"It would appear that some workers fear losing their jobs, or being ostracized in the workplace if they blow the whistle, and our survey data shows that some choose to stay silent if they witness unethical activities at work," says Richard Lamond, chief human resources officer for Spherion.
This is simply more evidence that CEOs need better lines of communication. A 2004 study by Gantz Wiley Research found that while 71 percent of senior executives believe their companies act ethically, only 43 percent of the people who work in those same companies think the firms act ethically.
These studies are really bad news if you are a chief executive. They reveal that when there are ethical violations in your company, you only stand a chance of learning about them half the time.
And, as you know, government agencies in recent years have become more vigilant about holding the feet of company executives to the fire. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 has forced reporting and accounting structures on public companies, and government prosecutors have let it be known that in the worst cases of ethical violations they won't hesitate to bring criminal charges against top executives.
So, as it turns out, a chief executive is only as ethical as the people around them. And, they had better do something fast before they find themselves in a messy situation.
"More companies are putting policies in place to protect workers who report unethical behavior, which includes hot lines where workers can expose any unethical behavior they have observed, anonymously," says Spherion's Lamond. "Hopefully, these new actions will encourage more workers to alert officials at their companies to wrongdoings in the years to come."
Well, that's a start, but another company policy is not going to make most violators toe the straight and narrow.
It's time for chief executives to put ethics at the top of their to-do lists. They need to become vigilant and tireless ethics proponents. The best way for that to occur is for chief executives to let everyone in the company know that unethical behavior won't be tolerated.
They, of course, have to act ethically at all times themselves, but they need to insist on ethical behavior from everyone and punish violators severely. That is imperative to getting the message across to everyone.
But that doesn't mean you want to create a "gotcha" culture with workers spying on each other so they can get credit for finding an ethics violation.
It means that every worker has to assume responsibility for ethical behavior. No one can stand over everyone eight hours a day to make sure they do the right thing. Individuals have to police themselves.
But they'll never get the message unless the company makes it a priority. Companies can adopt all the policies they want but until they repeatedly show that this is important to them, the policies will be little more than more rules in the company handbook.
© Copley News Service