The Flip Side of the Quarter: Only 25% of employees think colleagues model ethical behavior

A recent survey by Gartner (formerly CEB) indicates some bleak stats for companies —  the 2017 poll of 5,000 workers in the U.S. indicates that “only 25 percent of employees believe their teammates and colleagues engage in and model the right ethical behaviors.”

This is a lost opportunity for many organizations. Research that shows that running an ethical organization pays off financially in the long-run. The CEB/Gartner findings also indicate, “Employees from strong cultures of integrity are 90 percent less likely to observe misconduct and are more likely to report that which they do see. They are also more likely to over-perform on individual and team goals. Gartner also notes financial opportunities – notably, that companies with strong cultures of integrity have 10-year total shareholder returns 7 percentage points higher than companies with low perceptions of integrity.”

The Gartner survey results provide companies valuable insight for how to run a more ethical organization.  While many speak of the need for tone at the top, there is much to be said about tone in the middle and the potential impact of a direct manager on overall conduct and culture. The results note that despite higher percentages of reliance on upper level managers to behave ethically, “those leader-level efforts are not enough if they aren’t reinforced by the behaviors front-line employees’ sense and experience among their colleagues.”

The PR Newswire summary of this research offered several other ideas that organizations can immediately take to improve their internal culture. One approach is to add real-world training that helps people know the right path to take.  Another is to promote those individuals who actually do so (even if it’s not necessarily financially beneficial in the short-term). In addition, ensuring consistent messaging and highlighting positive behaviors are key to demonstrating the organizational commitment to ethics.

The Ethical Systems culture measurement survey provides companies a tool to assess their internal culture.  As we see it — based on academic research —  a culture of integrity is one where employees are committed to the organization and its mission and feel they can speak openly and honestly about the company, even if the views they are sharing are critical (e.g., of policy, of the decision making process, of potential misconduct, etc.). We focus on several key constructs in defining ethical culture — fairness, trust, empathy, among others — because research shows that cultures that exhibit these strengths report fewer observations of unethical conduct.

There is a demonstrably growing body of evidence that supports the notion that when companies focus on ethics and their long term purpose, stability and greater profits soon follow. Ethical Systems provides such resources for companies seeking to bolster their efforts in this area — whether it is links to research on how operating with integrity increases value, a talk by ES founder Jonathan Haidt that reinforces how virtue flourishes in organizations, or our aggregation of various studies and papers on how ethics pays.

As research shows and the Gartner survey reinforces, for culture to shift, it takes commitment from all levels of an organization — entry level employees to lifelong workers. Ethical culture is like a garden, it needs to be weeded regularly.  For organizations, this means a systems approach to understanding why ethics matters for them, demonstrating how leaders can model appropriate behavior, and supporting such behaviors through everyday actions with respect to hiring, firing and management of employees and processes.  Otherwise there is a real danger of making the plunging slide down a slippery ethical slope.