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officeRISMEDIA, December 24, 2009—(MCT)—Times are bad, and it’s a dog-eat-dog world. We’re in it for what we can get. Cut a safety corner here. Pad expenses there. Take the kickback because everybody’s doing it. Right? Not at all. The recession appears to have made the workplace a more honest place.

Since 1994, the Ethics Resource Center has fielded the biennial National Business Ethics Survey. Based on findings from the recently released 2009 report, the center reached what may be a surprising conclusion: We behave better in bad times.

“Contrary to what one might expect, misconduct declines in turbulent economic times and rises when the pressure’s off,” the report says. When asked about specific abuses or ethical lapses—such as misusing company resources, lying to outside stakeholders or falsifying time or expenses—a smaller percentage of U.S. workers observed problems this year compared with the 2007 survey, taken before the recession began.

“Yet our research suggests that the improvements in ethical conduct will be temporary,” warned the ethics center’s CEO, Patricia Harned. When the business climate improves, the survey’s history shows that workplace ethics will lapse. The pattern was foreshadowed between 2000 and 2003. Then, the business world suffered the bursting of the dot-com bubble, the economic fallout from 9/11, and scandals at Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and Adelphia—and workers saw fewer ethical problems in the workplace.

The ethics center offers two reasons why ethics improve in hard times:
-When an organization’s well-being is threatened, regulators may be watching more closely, thus prompting more careful, honest behavior.
-When times are tough, management communication may step up, encouraging high standards to see the organization through the troubles.

Lee Bolman, a professor who specializes in ethics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Bloch School of Business, said the survey findings made sense.

“One of the cycles you see in business is whenever you have a big run-up, like the dot-com bubble or the housing bubble, it looks like there’s money everywhere to be made, so people start getting ‘creative’ and putting a little less attention to traditional ethical values because the upside looks pretty good,” Bolman said.

The 2009 results hardly suggest we’re a nation of goody two shoes. Half of the 2,852 employee respondents who were questioned in depth said they had witnessed misconduct this year on the job. Still, that was a 7 percentage point drop from 2007.

Also, this year’s report found that employees were more likely to be whistleblowers. Sixty-three percent said they had reported on-the-job abuses, usually to management, this year, compared with 58% two years ago. Overall, 62% of those surveyed felt the ethical culture at their organizations had improved this year, up from 53% in 2007. Only 8% said they felt pressure to cut corners or commit an ethics violation.

Bolman agreed with the ethics center’s conclusion that when a company is imperiled, we’re more likely to find executives “saying, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s time to remind folks of all the things we say we believe in.’ For a lot of company leadership, bad times are a time to get more careful. And workers also are thinking it’s time to be more careful or maybe I’m out of a job.”

(c) 2009, The Kansas City Star.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.