Skip to content

Latest Research in Business Ethics

1) The 2011 National Business Ethics Survey


“Two years after the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) showed a rebound in ethical workplace behavior, the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey® (NBES) shows a bifurcated picture and a pattern unlike any other year. On the positive side, the data reveal historically low levels of current misconduct in the American workplace and record high levels of employee reporting.

  • The percentage of employees who witnessed misconduct at work fell to a new low of 45 percent. That compares to 49 percent in 2009 and is well down from the record high of 55 percent in 2007.
  • Those who reported the bad behavior they saw reached a record high of 65 percent, up from 63 percent two years earlier and 12 percentage points higher than the record low of 53 percent in 2005.

But clouding this good news are ominous warning signs of a potentially significant ethics decline ahead. And, the negative indicators predominate:

  • Retaliation against employee whistleblowers rose sharply. More than one in five employees (22 percent) who reported misconduct say they experienced some form of retaliation in return. That compares to 12 percent who experienced retaliation in 2007 and 15 percent in 2009.
  • The percentage of employees who perceived pressure to compromise standards in order to do their jobs climbed five points to 13 percent, just shy of the all-time high of 14 percent in 2000.
  • The share of companies with weak ethics cultures also climbed to near record levels at 42 percent, up from 35 percent two years ago.

The co-existence of widespread retaliation and pressure with historically low misconduct and high reporting is unlike any previous pattern. Two influences stood out in the unusual shift in trends: the economy and the unique experiences of those actively using social networking at work.

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. The decisions and behaviors of their leaders are perceived by employees as a heightened commitment to ethics. As a result, employees adopt a higher standard of conduct for themselves.

  • About one-third (34 percent) of employees say management now watches them more closely.
  • More than four in 10 employees (42 percent) say their company has increased efforts to raise awareness about ethics.
  • Thirty percent of employees agree that bad actors in their company are laying low because of fears about the recession.

Post-recession conduct among employees is remarkably similar to their behavior during the recession. This phenomenon is a significant factor in the historically low rates of misconduct and high rates of reporting. That matches historical data, which show that ethical conduct improves when the economy cools.

As the economy gets better – and companies and employees become more optimistic about their financial futures – it seems likely that misconduct will rise and reporting will drop, mirroring the growth in pressure and retaliation that have already taken place and conforming to historic patterns.

The other key element driving the 2011 NBES results is the rise in influence of active social networkers. A surprising and worrisome divide exists within the workplace between employees who spend substantial time on social networks and those who do not. Active social networkers report far more negative experiences in their workplaces. As a group, they are much more likely to experience pressure to compromise ethics standards and to experience retaliation for reporting misconduct than co-workers who are less involved with social networking.

  • By 32 percentage points, active social networkers are much more likely to feel pressure than less active networkers and non-networkers.
  • Most of the active networkers who reported misconduct say they experienced retaliation as a result: 56 percent compared to just 18 percent of less active social networkers and non-networkers.

 Active social networkers show a higher tolerance for certain activities that could be considered questionable. For example, among active social networkers, half feel it is acceptable to keep copies of confidential work documents in case they need them in their next job, compared to only 15 percent of their colleagues.

Certainly 2011 was a unique year. The NBES findings, which are unlike any the ERC has seen in its prior surveys, indicate something is driving a shift in the American workplace. American employees are doing the right thing more than ever before, but in other ways employees’ experiences are worse than in the past.

In ERC’s expanded review of the NBES findings that follows, readers could take one of two views. They might conclude this year’s survey results mark the beginning of a sea change in the way the American office conducts itself. Alternatively, they may regard the results as a snapshot of a workforce knocked off its historic trend lines for a period, and now in the process of returning to the patterns seen in past studies. The ERC believes it is more likely the latter – a snapshot that captures a downturn on the horizon in ethical behavior.” – Ethics Resource Centre (2012)

For the Full Report, please click here.

2) On the Essential Nature of Business


“Alexei Marcoux has argued that business ethics should focus less on organizational form and more on business practice. He suggests that a definition of ‘business’ as “a(n intentionally) self-sustaining, transaction seeking and transaction-executing practice” can help facilitate this shift by attuning researchers to the essential activity of business. I argue that this definition has troubling implications for a practice-based approach to business ethics, and that anyone advocating such an approach would be better served by treating ‘business’ as a cluster concept.” – Michael Buckley (2009)

For the Full Article, please click here.