WorkZone: Ain't misbehavin'? Join the club

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Stealing office supplies? Bullying a workplace underling? Bribing the Bahrainan royal family? You're not alone -- but then again, the company you keep is shrinking.

Workplace misconduct seems to be on the downswing, according to a new survey from the Ethics Resource Center, an Arlington, Va.-based research nonprofit. In a biannual report issued Tuesday, the center said only 41 percent of the 6,400 employees surveyed have observed misconduct at work.

That's down from 45 percent in 2011 and down from 55 percent in 2007, the survey's high-water mark (the survey began in 1994; this is the eighth such survey).

The most recent survey also found that fewer respondents "felt pressure to compromise their standards," down to 9 percent from 13 percent in 2011.

"Companies are working harder to build strong cultures and implement increasingly sophisticated ethics and compliance programs," said Michael G. Oxley, chair of the Ethic Resource Center board, in a statement that accompanied the survey. Employers seem to be doing "a better job of holding workers accountable, imposing discipline for misconduct and letting it be known publicly that bad behavior will be punished."

Though the survey is a young one, the results defied what was expected to be a corollary relationship between the improving economy and higher rates of office misconduct. According to the survey, "Higher stock prices have been accompanied by higher rates of misconduct, presumably because workers and companies both were tempted to take more risks in order to enjoy the rising tides."

But perhaps the "joblessness" of this particular recovery -- and still fresh memories of the Great Recession -- has workers spooked and toeing the line, said ethics center president Patricia J. Harned.

The soft recovery has "taken a toll on workers' confidence and tempered risk-taking on the job," she said.

Other findings:

* Managers are responsible for the lion's share of workplace misconduct (60 percent). Senior managers are more likely than lower-level managers to break rules, according to the survey.

* Twenty-one percent of workers who reported misconduct also said they suffered from retribution as a result.

* Most misconduct is serial, and the minority of reported misconduct comes in the form of one-time offenses.

* "Extremely serious" forms of misconduct -- falsifying company financial data, bribery -- were observed less frequently in 2013, the survey said.

The full survey can be downloaded at It was sponsored by Altria Group Inc. (the former Philip Morris Co.), Walmart, Lockheed Martin Corp., PricewaterhouseCoopers and others.

Bill Toland: or 412-263-2625.

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