People Do Really Bad Things At Work Because Their Companies Tell Them To

A survey of global business ethics violations found that the companies that break the law are the companies that pressure their employees to violate institutional norms.

If you witnessed ethical misconduct at work last year, you’re not alone. Across the world, large numbers of people report seeing workplace bribery, lying, cheating, and verbal abuse, a new poll finds.


The survey from the Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI), a Virginia-based research and certification group, shows that 30% of American employees witnessed misconduct in 2015, placing the U.S. in the middle of a ranking of 13 countries. In Russia and Brazil, half of employees saw misconduct–three times the rate of Japan or Spain.

The ECI surveyed a total of more than 13,000 people, with at least half of respondents in each country from companies of more than 1,000 people. Staff in Russia, Brazil, and India report the highest level of ethical lapses, with China and India next on the list (34% reporting). In the U.S., 22% of respondents say they saw lying or abusive behavior at work last year.

The report gives four metrics to assess ethical performance: whether employees are pressured to “compromise organizational standards,” observed misconduct, how much misconduct is actually reported, and how much people who report are retaliated against subsequently.

“The extent to which employees feel pressure to compromise organizational standards is a leading indicator of a larger potential threat: the presence of actual wrongdoing,” the ECI says. About three-quarters of employees who felt pressure also witnessed misconduct, while among those who reported no pressure, only 17% reported misconduct.

The ECI defines misconduct as “a violation of the law, an organization’s values or principles, and/or universal ethical principles, e.g., respect, fairness, honesty.” So it’s quite broad. It doesn’t have to mean money changing hands in brown paper bags. In general, misconduct was more likely in multinationals, rather than single-country firms, and at suppliers, rather than companies selling to end-consumers.

The ECI, whose board includes ethics officers at leading U.S. companies, wants to broaden the discussion of ethics beyond formal laws and compliance codes. It says firms should aim higher than simply avoiding corruption and observing legalities. “Workplace integrity–doing what’s right in a professional context–encompasses a top-to-bottom commitment to treating others with respect, being honest and forthright, and dealing fairly with those inside and outside the organization,” it says.


Read the full report here.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.