Despite an increase in workers' awareness of ethical conduct, more than half of U.S. workers have seen at least one type of ethical misconduct in the workplace, according to a survey released by the Ethics Resource Center.

The most widespread type of misconduct observed by employees was abusive or intimidating behavior toward employees, with 21% of participants in the 2005 National Business Ethics Survey reporting that they witnessed such behavior.

Nineteen percent of those surveyed reported they observed lying to employees, customers, vendors or the public. Survey participants also said they witnessed a situation that placed employee interests over organizational interests, violations of safety regulations, misreporting of actual time worked, discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, age or similar categories, theft and sexual harassment.

The survey of more than 3,000 U.S. workers found the following:

  • 52% of employees observed at least one type of misconduct in the workplace in the past year, with 36% of these witnessing at least two or more violations.
  • 69% of employees report their employers implement ethics training, up 14% from the 2003 NBES study.
  • 65% of employees said their organizations have a place they can seek ethics advice.
  • 55% of employees who observed misconduct at work reported it to management, down 10% from the 2003 study.
  • Five of six elements of a formal ethics and compliance program measured by the NBES have increased over time with the presence of written standards of ethical business conduct up 19% since 2004.

To curb ethical misconduct, top corporate leaders make ethics a very high and serious priority by implementing ethics programs, says Ira Lipman, chairman and president of Guardsmark LLC and principal sponsor of the survey.

"The leadership of corporate America should see ethics as one of their top responsibilities, and as an integral part of their stewardship and service to shareholders and customers," he says. "Senior executives should implement strong ethics programs within their companies."

According to the report, an effective ethics program should include:

  • Written standards of conduct
  • Training on ethics
  • Mechanisms to seek ethics or information
  • Means to report misconduct anonymously
  • Discipline of employees who violate ethical standards
  • Evaluation of employees performance based on ethical conduct