For years the Global Business Ethics Survey (GBES) has provided a wealth of fascinating information. Survey participants are asked to provide insight into the strength of the ethics culture in their workplace, the instances of misconduct they have observed, and what, if any, efforts are underway in their organizations to promote integrity. The most recent report came out recently, and it is chock-full of interesting information.
The GBES includes data from 14,000 employees of a cross-sector of industries surveyed between August 2019 and September 2020. The data is fascinating, as it shows the movement from a stable business environment to one upended by the global pandemic.
The insights from a year like no other give precious information on how employees managed last year, and more importantly, how we can support them going forward.
The Highest Pressure in 20 Years
Employee pressure reached the highest level since 2000. U.S. respondents indicated a sharp increase in employee pressure which indicates employees are experiencing more pressure to violate their organization’s ethics standards than in previous years. This is likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic which caused significant organizational changes.
Observed misconduct surges when employees are under pressure. Consistent with the findings of previous reports, the correlation between the increase in employee pressure and observed misconduct continues to surge upward.
Employee perceptions of retaliation after reporting misconduct escalated to a record high. In the U.S., rates of retaliation have more than tripled since 2013 and globally, they have almost doubled since 2019.
Tripled? Employee’s perception of rates of retaliation has tripled in the US since 2013? That’s terrible, but the good news is that we can help to fix that.
I sat down with Dr. Pat Harned, CEO of the Ethics & Compliance Initiative, the organization responsible for the GBES report, to get her advice for compliance officers on what to do to reverse the disturbing trends indicated by the data from the GBES.
KGH: For years the data has shown a correlation between the increase in employee pressure and an increase of observed misconduct. 2020 had the highest scores for employee pressure in 20 years. What was driving this pressure?
The pandemic obviously created an enormous amount of stress on employees and organizations. Stress came from the pandemic itself and all the change it wreaked on people’s home lives, as well as the insecurity of what was happening in their businesses. Staff reductions, new mergers and acquisitions, new management, changes in pay or commissions – the changes were big.
When there are that many changes in an organization, people become less likely to report misconduct. They feel more likely to be retaliated against, as we see in the data of the survey.
KGH: How can business leaders support their employees when this type of unprecedented stress exists?
The biggest thing business leaders need to do is to tell employees that the pressure to perform is not absolute. We don’t need to succeed by unethical means.
Second, business leaders need to remind employees of the resources available to relieve stress, such as employee assistance programs (EAP). Some companies have given access to mindfulness apps to workers or created in-house support groups. Sometimes the messaging is even more important than the available services. Just hearing that management is thinking about employee wellbeing can be transformative.
KGH: I was shocked to see that the percentage of employees perceiving retaliation moved so dramatically upward from previous years. What should managers be doing to stem the tide of fear of retaliation?
Managers need to reinforce organizational integrity despite the pressure. They need to tell employees that they will be protected if they come forward to report misconduct.
KGH: Turning to Compliance Officers, how can we support managers and the organization to communicate more effectively with employees, especially when they are working remotely?
It’s important to give managers content to use with their groups so that they feel comfortable. The addition of video or cartoons can be helpful if they’re entertaining enough so that people want to watch or read them. Basic talking points should be provided for managers.
Materials don’t have to be complicated to be compelling. For instance, choose a simple ethics-related phrase, and tell the managers to use the phrase in a meeting with employees this week.
It can help to find out what other organizations are doing. Compliance officers tend to give their materials freely, so if you see a good idea, use it.
KGH: There has been a lot of discussion about the idea of incentivizing good behavior. Given the resource restraints and high-stress environment people are in, has the power of incentives changed? How can we deploy them effectively?
People misconstrue the word “incentive” to mean money. While incentives can be monetary, they can also simply be making people feel valued and important. Awards for compliance can be a good thing, but they can also inadvertently shine the spotlight on people who would rather remain anonymous, especially if for any reason, that person fears retaliation.
I recommend including integrity as an element of each employee 360 review. Managers should be held accountable if a certain percentage of employees on their team believe them to behave unethically or to fail to live the values of the company.
For many employees, the strongest incentive is affirmation. Notes from the CEO or managers telling them that they are valued, especially when they’ve made the hard choice to report a violation, go farther than any monetary incentive.
KGH: If the reward is affirmation and the investigation is confidential, how will that affect culture since no one will know about it?
People talk. Others are always aware that something is going on. Even if people don’t know the details of the investigation, they will see that a process is playing out. Culture is built on what people see, experience, and expect at the company.
KGH: I know I speak for everyone when I say that we are grateful for the v
ast amount of information and insights available from the publication. Where can people get a copy of it?
People can request a copy at https://www.ethics.org/global-business-ethics-survey/#non-member-download