Ethics can play key role in work site pressure

Survey shows many feel forced to cut corners

It looks like we can add another dynamic to the long list of workplace stressors: ethics. That’s right, ethics. A 1997 survey sponsored by the Ethics Officer Association and the American Society of Chartered Life Underwriters and Chartered Financial Consultants revealed the following:

The majority of workers (60%) feel a substantial amount of pressure on the job, and more than one out of four (27%) feel a "great deal" of pressure.

The majority (56%) also feel some pressure to act unethically or illegally on the job.

Half the workers (48%) reported that, due to pressure, they had engaged in one or more unethical and/or illegal actions during the last year. The most frequently cited misbehavior of the 25 listed was cutting corners on quality control.

A total of 5,000 surveys were mailed to a cross-section of U.S. workers. Respondents in the manufacturing (26%) and the health care (24%) industries reported feeling the highest level of pressure to act illegally or unethically.

This type of pressure can affect productivity, as well as mental health and morale. When they feel this kind of pressure in the workplace, American workers most often cut corners, cut work, or engage in cover-ups, according to the survey.

"If there’s a misalignment; if your values are in direct conflict with values of your company, it can be very stressful," notes Natalie Green, senior manager of ethics and responsible business practices consulting with New York City-based Arthur Andersen.

"Also, you need to look at loyalty, in terms of how you wish to represent your company to the outside world," she adds. "Morale is shaped by the feeling that you are in an organization where the corporation supports you doing the right thing. In other words, you won’t be shot’ if you ask questions or raise issues. If that atmosphere is not present, it will create tremendous stress and workplace pressure."

Workplace pressure has increased significantly for U.S. workers over the past five years, according to the survey, but most believe it won’t get worse in the future. However, only 6% of the workers surveyed feel "very little" pressure in the workplace.

Can you measure ethics?

Arthur Andersen believes it’s possible for a company to actually measure its level of ethics, which, according to the survey, would bear an inverse relationship to pressure and stress. In fact, the company has recently introduced a product, Intrasight, which is designed to do precisely that.

"It’s a paper-based questionnaire with about 100 questions, administered to a sample of employees," Green explains. After benchmarking a company’s scores against a database to see how it compares to other companies, Andersen consultants will recommend specific changes. "A lot depends on your own goals," Green admits. "Changing culture is not easy to do."

A number of corporations introduced formal ethics programs in response to 1991 U.S. Sentencing Commission Guidelines, which prescribe more lenient sentences and fines for companies that have taken measures to prevent employee misconduct.

"Legal issues were clearly the driving force," notes Green. "The 1991 federal sentencing guidelines address a whole gamut of activities — anything from employees cheating on specific practices to dumping environmental waste."

But not all ethics programs are so cynically derived, she adds. "Some companies have taken a strictly legal approach, seeing that everything they do complies with the law. The next level is more aspirational; it goes beyond the letter of law and says, This is the way we behave.’ Then, at the far end of the spectrum is social corporate responsibility."

The second level is where Andersen and most of its clients "live," says Green. "Once you get beyond the structure and the letter of the law, an effective ethics program should be designed to create a culture that supports ethical behavior. You don’t want your employees wondering if they will be supported if they do the right thing; that would be detrimental to morale."

While conducting the research necessary to design the Intrasight program, Andersen consultants gained some key insights into employee attitudes. "Our research showed that it’s extremely important for employees to feel they are being treated fairly," says Green. "There needs to be a rewards system — for example, do your employees feel that people who are ethical will get ahead?"

Because of those findings, she notes, one of the questions in the Intrasight instrument seeks to establish a scale of employee commitment; how closely aligned to the top values of the company do the employees feel?

"One of the major work issues we focus on is why people do wrong when they are in the workplace," notes Green, "And a major area is expectations — management pressure. Many employees feel that management’s attitude is, just get it done, I don’t care how. This leads to unethical behaviors, such as making promises to customers that you may not be able to keep. In these situations, the employee can be made to feel helpless if there is nobody they can go to for help. And when we don’t have options, or we don’t have control of a situation at work, that is a major stressor."

You don’t have to have a formal ethics program in place to benefit from a program like Intrasight, says Green. "If you have an existing program, it will tell you if it’s effective. But if you don’t have a program, and you want some baseline measurement of your ethical culture, it will give you an accurate reading."

The hallmarks of an ethical culture, says Green, include the following:

executive and supervisory leadership;

fair treatment of employees;

ethics in discussions and decisions (open discussion, perception that business decisions take ethics into account);

reward systems that support ethical conduct.

What can health promotion professionals do to help engender a healthier ethical atmosphere at work? What type of management approach should they help to engender? "People need to feel comfortable about seeking advice," says Green. "If it comes out [in a survey] that they are afraid to ask questions of supervisors, obviously it’s something you want to address. For example, if you don’t already have one, you could look into employee help lines."

While such help lines, often part of an employee assistance program, are provided to address all sorts of behavioral and mental health issues, "Informal data suggests that most of these calls are HR [human resources]-related," says Green.

[For more information, contact: Natalie Green, Arthur Andersen, 1345 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10105. Telephone: (212) 708-8560. Fax: (212) 445-9626.]