Workers to firms: Fairness counts most

As more companies create ethics programs, they may want to also take a hard look at just how fair they come across to their employees.

General perception of fairness in a company has a huge correlation both with employees' willingness to report unethical behavior and with keeping their own ethical standards high, according to a study of four large companies by Linda Treviño, professor of organizational behavior at Pennsylvania State University's Smeal College of Business,

"When you say 'ethics' to employees, they think fairness," says Dr. Treviño.

Employees who felt they were treated with dignity and respect, that rewards were allocated fairly, and that decisions were unbiased, were much more likely to say they would report violations of the ethical code. They also reported seeing much less unethical activity - misuse of job time, employees calling in sick for a day off, or padding expense accounts.

"If they feel they've been unfairly treated, [employees] are more likely to want to harm the organization," says Treviño. "Whether that's conscious or unconscious we don't know." The report is particularly relevant to executives who run ethics programs, she adds. They may want to work more closely with personnel officials to ensure that the firm is seen as being fair.

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