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Operating Systems

Hard times bring out the ethics in workers

If the 2011 version of the Ethics Resource Council's National Business Ethics survey continues trends recorded in its 22 predecessors, people are less likely to witness unethical behavior on the job.

Tough economic circumstances may actually reduce unethical behavior in the workplace. The Ethics Resource Center is gearing up for the 2011 National Business Ethics Survey.

According to the most recent ERC survey released in November 2009, a weak economy coincides with a drop in unethical behavior in the workplace.

Forty-nine percent of respondents to the 2009 survey witnessed some form of unethical behavior at work in the prior 12 months, down from 56 percent of respondents to the 2007 ERC survey. It's not surprising that misuse of company resources was the most common act, reported by 23 percent of the respondents.

More surprising is the second-most common unethical activity: abusive behavior. Acts of abuse were observed by 22 percent of the workers surveyed. Other frequently observed bad behaviors were lying to employees (19 percent), e-mail and Internet abuse (18 percent), conflicts of interest (16 percent), and discrimination (14 percent).

Sixty-three percent of workers witnessing unethical behavior reported it, an increase from 58 percent in 2007. Another positive indicator is the drop in workers who felt pressured to act unethically, to 8 percent in 2009 from 10 percent in 2007 and 14 percent in 2000.

The ERC survey highlights the importance of having a strong culture of ethical behavior at your organization. A culture of ethics is more than hyperbole hanging on the wall of the reception area in an overpriced frame. If you want to get serious about preventing ethical breaches, you have to determine where and when the lapses occur, and then train employees to respond the right way when they encounter them.

Recognizing instances of bad behavior by good workers

Workplace misdeeds aren't always easy to spot because they're usually the result of the ordinary foibles of otherwise-honest, ethical people. They're also often the result of stressful situations, according to Dennis J. Moberg in When Good People Do Bad Things at Work. The report is one of dozens available on the Santa Clara University Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Perhaps the epitome of esteemed corporate culture in technology was the HP Way cultivated with such care by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. The 2007 pretexting scandal tarnished Hewlett-Packard's stellar reputation for ethical behavior. The Markkula Center site has a link the the PowerPoint presentation given by Hewlett-Packard Vice President and Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer Jon Hoak in which Hoak outlined his plan for restoring HP's ethical culture.

A strategy for countering cynicism in the workplace

Maintaining morale in difficult times takes honesty and creativity. An organization's values start at the top but must encompass all employees and contractors. On the Ivey Business Journal site, Mary C. Gentile describes an approach to promoting business ethics that assumes workers know the right thing to do and instead emphasizes making sure the right thing actually gets done.

One aspect of the technique Gentile calls Giving Voice to Values is encouraging workers to express their positive values through their words and actions at work. The approach also anticipates the excuses employees make for acting unethically, such as "It's standard operating procedure," "It's just a little thing," and "It's somebody else's responsibility." Workers are trained to respond differently when tempted to let such ethics breaches slide.

For an exhaustive examination of ethical issues in technology, visit the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Computer and Information Ethics.