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The Cost Of "Doing The Right Thing"

Posted: 01/19/12 08:53 AM ET

Lately we are all reeling from painful stories of alleged misconduct making headlines in American newspapers. Events at Penn State, the Dover Air Force Base mortuary, and the DEA's Operation Fast and Furious not only turned our attention to those either accused of or admitting to wrongdoing, but also on the people who blew (or didn't blow) the whistle.

The allegations and reports of misconduct, as well as the struggles people endured to bring the issues to light, raise some serious questions about the responsibilities of people who know that something inappropriate is taking place. Many pundits have argued that they would have done "the right thing" had they witnessed any of these acts -- even if that meant risking their jobs by reporting the activities to authorities. But the reality is that -- for all of us -- it takes extraordinary courage to report the people with whom we work, particularly when the individuals involved are in a more senior position. The Ethics Resource Center's national surveys show that over a third of us (35%) witness misconduct and stay quiet.

Part of the reason so many of us choose silence is that blowing the whistle is risky -- with the potential for severe consequences. Of the three whistleblowers who risked their jobs to speak out about the wrongdoing at Dover, one was fired (he was eventually re-hired); another was put on administrative leave for eight months and labeled "mentally unstable." All three received letters of reprimand. These employees had to go around military chains of command to get action, and it took persistence to do so. Would the rest of us have had the courage to press on?

The Dover employees were not alone in their experiences. Workplace retaliation against whistleblowers ranges from being snubbed by colleagues to outright job loss and even physical harm to personal property. And statistics from the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) reveal that retaliation against employee whistleblowers is rising sharply. Our newest research shows more than one in five employees (22 percent) who reported misconduct they saw say they experienced some form of retaliation in return. That compares to 12 percent who experienced retaliation in 2007 and 15 percent in 2009.

To put that increase into perspective, with more than 138 million people over the age of 18 currently employed in the U.S., more than 8.8 million people experienced retaliation for blowing the whistle from 2009-2011: this is roughly the population of New Jersey. In two short years, that number grew by 2.3 million people: approximately the population of Houston, and larger than the population of New Mexico. It also represents the average number of nightly viewers of Comedy Central's The Daily Show.

The business world is at an interesting point in time. During times of economic uncertainty, research shows that ethical conduct among US employees tends to be at its best. The past two years have been a prime example. In 2011, the percentage of employees who witnessed misconduct at work fell to a new low (45 percent); in 2007 57 percent of employees saw wrongdoing in the workplace. This year more employees reported the bad behavior they saw -- reaching a record high of 65 percent. That is 10 points higher than the percentages of reporters before the recession.

Historical trends indicate that as the economy improves ethical behavior in the workplace declines. For that reason, we should all expect that such will be the case in business in the days ahead. While misconduct is low right now and reporting is high, we are already seeing record levels of retaliation against whistleblowers and pressure to compromise ethical standards. These are not good signs, as retaliation and pressure are leading indicators of future misconduct and silence among employees who might otherwise blow the whistle.

Building and fostering ethics and compliance programs is more critical than ever for organizations of all sizes, in all industries. When business leaders intentionally reinforce integrity as being important, and invest in well-implemented ethics and compliance programs that help employees respond to ethics issues, workforce conduct improves.

We are just a few weeks into a new business year with renewed energy, new business goals and a new sense of purpose around what we want to accomplish in 2012. It's not too late to add one more New Year's resolution, a commitment to building an ethical culture at our places of employment where whistleblowers are encouraged and supported. If that doesn't happen, there is no telling who may claim the next headline.

Dr. Patricia J. Harned is President of the Ethics Resource Center, authors of the biennial National Business Ethics Survey (NBES). You can find the latest NBES report at ethics.org/nbes.