Who is more ethical, employees or managers?

ManagementIt seems workplace misconduct is at an all-time low. Surprised?

Well, at least that’s the result of a new survey from the Ethics Resource Center, a nonprofit focused on ethical standards at work.

The ERC found that 41% of about 6,400 employees surveyed have actually observed misconduct first hand in the past year.

That’s down from 45% from two years ago, when the survey was last conducted.

The all-time high was 55% in 2007, better than one out of two, which apparently marked the peak of the anything-goes-at-work workplace.

Called the National Business Ethics Survey, it has been conducted since 1994, and has been asking the question about how many employees have observed ethical wrongdoing at work since 2000.

The improvement in good behavior was across the board.

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Strong ethics

The study found workplace misconduct fell in each of the 26 categories it examines.

For instance, one category called “pressure to compromise standards,” often a leading indicator of future misconduct, fell from 13% in 2011 to 9% now.

The drop may reflect a tendency to take fewer risks when the economic outlook is less certain, given the on-going soft recovery.

But ERC researchers said the drop is more likely related to a “continuing and growing commitment to strong ethics and compliance programs” that is becoming a new norm in many workplaces.

But not everything is on the up and up.

Managers lagging

It turns out a relatively high percentage of misconduct is committed by managers – the very people who are supposed to set a good example of ethical conduct and make sure that employees honor the rules.

The results showed 60% of misconduct reported by employees involved someone with managerial authority from the supervisory level up to top management, while 24% of observed misdeeds involved senior managers.

Employees also said that 26% of misconduct is ongoing and 12% said wrongdoing was taking place company-wide.

Also in the less-than-favorable category: Retaliation against people who reported wrongdoing is a widespread problem.

For the second straight survey, more than one in five workers who reported misconduct said they experienced retaliation in return. Twenty one percent reported facing some form of retribution, virtually unchanged from a high of 22% just two years ago.

Lastly, among those who observed misconduct in 2013, 63% reported what they saw, compared to 65% last time around.

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