Despite the wailing and worries over corporate scandals of recent years, almost half of human resource professionals believe ethical conduct is not rewarded in business today, according to a new survey.

What's worse, over the last five years HR pros feel increasingly more pressure to compromise their organization's ethics standards.

One bright note: They indicate personally observing significantly fewer actions of misconduct in the workplace.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) jointly conducted the 2003 Business Ethics Survey, with 462 respondents yielding a 22 percent response rate. The survey is a follow-up to a similar study conducted in 1997.

Much attention has been given to corporate ethics violations in the last year, and the survey as a whole shows that HR pros are less concerned now with retaliation from coworkers or senior management, or being seen as whistleblowers.

Yet, needing to follow the boss's directives and wanting to be team players remains high on the list of pressures that may lead to HR pros compromising the organization's ethics standards.

Survey results show:

  • 24 percent of HR pros feel pressured to compromise ethics standards all the time, fairly often or periodically. In comparison, 13 percent indicated they felt pressured in 1997.

  • 49 percent say that ethical conduct is not rewarded in business today.

  • The top five causes pressuring HR to compromise an organization's ethical standards are: the need to follow the boss's directives (49 percent); meeting overly aggressive business/financial objectives (48 percent); helping the organization survive (40 percent); meeting schedule pressures (35 percent); and wanting to be a team player (27 percent).

  • 79 percent of respondent organizations have written ethics standards.

  • HR professionals say 70 percent of senior management and 72 percent of CEOs are committed to acting ethically. 68 percent and 69 percent, respectively, said the same in the 1997 survey.

  • 83 percent of HR pros indicate that employees follow written ethics standards all the time or often.

  • 85 percent of respondents say senior management supports HR's adherence to organizations' written ethics standards

  • 69 percent of HR respondents strongly agree or agree that HR is a primary ethics resource in the organization, but 40 percent say that HR is not part of the ethics infrastructure and is only tasked with cleaning up ethics violations.

  • 35 percent of HR pros often or occasionally personally observed ethics misconduct in the last 12 months, down from 53 percent in 1997.

  • Types of misconduct most commonly observed were: misreporting of hours worked; employees lying to a supervisor; management lying to employees, customers, vendors or the public.

    Why not report misconduct?

    Organizations must rely on their employees to make them aware of ethical issues and concerns before major problems or scandals erupt. But as results of the survey indicate, the willingness of employees to report observed misconduct cannot be taken for granted. For example, a key challenge for most organizations in employees reporting ethics violations is that most did not believe that action would be taken, or they feared retaliation from a supervisor or management.

    What influences ethical behavior?

    The views of HR professionals are strongly affected by the actions and behaviors of colleagues and supervisors. Factors that most influenced their behavior were their own personal values, followed by attitude/behavior of senior management, credible enforcement of ethics violations and the attitude/behavior of supervisors.