Witnessing (but not reporting) Unethical Workplace Behaviour

A new study of ethics in Canadian workplaces suggests that 42% of workers have witnessed ethical breaches in the workplace, and nearly half of them failed to report such misconduct.

The survey was conducted by Ipsos Reid for ClearView Strategic Partners Inc., a Toronto-based ethics whistleblowing advisory firm.

The survey also drilled down to ask respondents what kinds of questionable behaviour they had witnessed. According to Clearview,

…28% of respondents witnessed the misuse of company property at their current employer, 25% saw harm to employees, 17% observed privacy violations, 17% were aware of fraud, 13% witnessed conflicts of interest, 9% knew about bribery or corruption, 12% observed environmental violations, and 11% had knowledge of the misrepresentation of financial results.

It’s a provocative study, but one that raises more questions than it answers. For starters, as is often the case in such surveys, the proportion of respondents saying they had witnessed unethical behaviour is implausibly low. Only 42%? Presumably that means people were thinking only of a narrow range of fairly serious infractions, and ignoring commonplace wrongs such as petty lies, employees shirking their responsibilities, and minor thefts from the company’s supply closet. My guess is that there is some serious under-reporting going on here. The interesting question: just which kinds of ‘minor’ wrongdoings are likely to be most under-reported in a survey like this?

Another question: do the people surveyed understand well the definitions of the forms of wrongdoing they say they witnessed? For example, when they say they witnessed conflicts of interest, just what do they mean? A study I co-authored a decade ago found that many people in the organization we studied could not provide a clear definition of the term “conflict of interest,” even though they had a clear understanding that such conflicts posed ethical problems. If respondents to Clearview’s survey are equally confused about the definition of (for example) conflict of interest, are they more liable to be over- or under-reporting having witnessed it?

Finally, there are interesting questions to ask about what the study says is the widespread failure to report misconduct (i.e., presumably to report them to someone in a position of authority). According to Clearview, 69% of respondents indicated a “lack of faith that investigations will be conducted properly,” 66% said they didn’t believe that disciplinary measures would be applied consistently, and 23% said that they feared “retaliation or negative consequences.”

There’s nothing surprising about those answers, but Clearview’s press release doesn’t make clear whether those answers were the ones given spontaneously by respondents, or whether they were on a menu of options provided for respondents to select from. Notoriously absent among them are other, seemingly likely factors, such as misguided loyalty or apathy, or the sort of tunnel vision that makes many of us focus on our ‘missions’ at all cost. Of course, most people are unlikely to give such answers, since they reflect as poorly on the respondent as they do on the wrongdoer. It is probably far easier to get people to admit to having seen wrongdoing, and indeed to having failed to report it, than it is to get them to admit having failed for truly blameworthy reasons.

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