Posted 09-19-2012

Where do employees go when they want to report workplace misconduct such as harassment, stealing, or substance abuse? The company hotline? Human Resources? The government? No—most will go directly to their supervisor.

Sixty percent of the Fortune 500 employees surveyed in June 2012 by the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) said they would report misconduct to their supervisor first. About one in five (21%) would go to higher management and eleven percent would call a hotline. Just one percent would go first to an outside agency. Even when supervisors are not the first place an employee chooses to report, they are often a secondary source. In fact, only fourteen percent of employees fail to discuss their concerns with their supervisor at one point or another.

According to The National Business Ethics Survey of Fortune 500 Employees: An Investigation into the State of Ethics at America’s Most Powerful Companies, the most common forms of misconduct at such firms include:

  • Conducting personal business on company time
  • Abusive behavior
  • Lying to employees
  • Health/safety violations
  • Discrimination
  • Sexual harassment
  • Internet abuse
  • Company resource abuse

The ERC report notes that the best way for companies to reduce their risk and avoid outside involvement in workplace issues is to respond effectively to employees’ initial complaints and fix any problems identified. However, more than a quarter of the survey respondents said that as far as they know, there was no investigation into their report of misconduct.

Doubt that the company will take action is by far the most common reason employees choose not to report what they’ve observed, according to ERC. This is dangerous for employers, since nearly three-quarters (71%) of employee reports have merit. “If companies want to know about misconduct … they have to be diligent about responding to every report they receive,” the report continued. That means that supervisors and managers—your first responders to misconduct reports—must be trained on how to handle whistleblowing and employee complaints.

What this means to you:

The ERC report makes a number of recommendations for improving ethical performance, including: “Implement separate training components for distinct groups of employees – especially supervisors and middle managers who set the tone for their direct reports.”

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.