Survival guide: Perspectives from the field

Patricia Harned, president of the Ethics Resource Center

Patricia Harned, president of the Ethics Resource Center

Courtesy of Patricia Harned

The Ethics Resource Center (www.ethics.org), the country's oldest non-profit devoted to promoting organizational ethics, published its National Business Ethics Survey this month.

The Washington organization's report, which spans 1994 to 2005, asked employees in the private, non-profit and government sectors about ethics and compliance in their workplaces. The results: Maybe the world isn't as full of cheaters as we think.

Staff Writer Roseanne Gerin talked with President Patricia Harned about the report's findings and ethics in the contracting and government communities.

WT: How do you define business ethics?

Harned: We refer to it as clear standards and norms that help employees distinguish between right and wrong behavior.

WT: Are people more ethical today than a decade ago?

Harned: It's about the same. While formal ethics and compliance education programs are on the rise, the measures we collect regarding culture have remained fairly constant. It's the program that strengthens a culture ? a company's efforts to focus on how well top management is communicating ethics and how much supervisors are holding employees accountable. Those are things that go beyond the actual program. Those haven't changed a lot over time, and they make a big difference.

WT: What was the report's most important finding?

Harned: First, 52 percent of employees observed some type of misconduct in the workplace, and that is a measure that has not changed very much over the past five years.

Second, we've seen a rise in the number of companies that have implemented ethics and compliance programs.

Third, we found that while ethics and compliance programs do make a difference, the culture of the organization makes a bigger difference. So if all a company does is implement a program that's compliant with regulation, [that's not enough.] There's also a need for it to look at the culture, because it has a more powerful influence than the program.

WT: How do you define misconduct?

Harned: Acts that constitute abusive or intimidating behavior toward employees, lying to employees or customers, conflicts of interest, safety violations, misreporting of time, e-mail and Internet abuse, discrimination, sexual harassment and theft.

WT: How has technology affected ethics?

Harned: We asked employees if they observed Internet and e-mail abuse, and 13 percent of employees across the country indicated that they have seen abuse of the Internet and e-mail in the past year.

Technology has raised a lot of ethical questions about how private your e-mail should be, how you make use of the Web in the work that you do, how binding are the commitments you make by e-mail and, in the securities industry, how binding are recommendations that are made over instant messaging.

The fact that the Internet and technology have increased our ability to communicate quickly adds pressure to people's jobs. As much as it does good things, it also adds complications.

WT: What are the benefits of technology?

Harned: For companies that are trying to distribute a code of conduct and communicate ethics as a priority, technology has helped them do that. You can train 100 percent of your employees no matter where they are in the world with e-learning.

WT: How can government contractors and agencies instill ethics?

Harned: For government contractors, it's similar to a lot of other organizations. There's an agency called the Defense Industry Initiative on Business Ethics and Conduct that's made up of government contractors in defense.

Its purpose is to have a self-governing standard above and beyond the government standard for those contractors, so that they do business in an ethical manner.

And the things they do are fairly consistent with what you see across industries: developing codes of conduct, training employees and providing help lines for whistle-blowers.

They also try to address the culture of the organization, talk with management about holding employees accountable and get top management to communicate that ethics are priorities.

WT: How can government contractors and agencies guard against a few bad acts so as to not give the impression that all their workers are unethical or corrupt?

Harned: It's a part of doing business that when you have more than a few employees, there's the likelihood that misconduct could take place. We've also seen that when misconduct becomes a big attention draw from the media, those companies suffer because of the acts of a few people. In government agencies, as much as anywhere else, there's a need to be able to point to good, solid efforts by the organization to address ethics.

There's also a need to point out the positive things that employees do; that is, to point out that they do business in an ethical manner. It's helpful when misconduct does take place to be able to say, "But here's the larger history of our organization."

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