Unethical behaviour is widespread in the UK workforce, according to a recent study by the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) which revealed the top ten most common workplace misdemeanours.

The survey of over 1,600 managers found that almost three quarters (72%) had witnessed employees lying to cover their mistakes, with the same number reporting their colleagues cut corners and delivered substandard work. A further 68% had seen people badmouthing team members behind their backs.

The findings formed part of the ILM report into trust and integrity in the UK workplace, ‘The Truth about trust: Honesty and integrity at work’, which highlights the business benefits of high-trust high-integrity working environments.

Some other common examples of dishonest behaviour included passing the buck for poor performance (67%), slacking off when no one is watching (64%) and taking the credit for other people’s work (57%).

The top ten bad behaviours witnessed in the workplace were:

  1. Cutting corners – 72%
  2. Lying to hide your mistakes – 72%
  3. Badmouthing colleagues – 68%
  4. Passing the buck (when you don’t get your work done) – 67%
  5. Slacking off when no one’s watching – 64%
  6. Lying to hide other people’s mistakes – 63%
  7. Taking credit for other people’s work – 57%
  8. Taking a sickie – 56%
  9. Lying about skills and experience – 54%
  10. Taking low value items from work – 52%

Charles Elvin, Chief Executive of ILM, said: “At a time when organisations are bending over backwards to demonstrate their ethical credentials, we were surprised to see just how endemic some of these bad behaviours are in the workplace. Even relatively minor misdemeanours, if left unchecked, can poison a workplace culture and bring down trust and ethical standards across the workforce.”

The research highlighted the importance of setting clear ethical guidelines for staff as instances of bad or unethical behaviour were significantly lower in organisations with a statement of ethical values in place. Organisations with a clear set of values were up to 11% less likely to experience unethical behaviour.

Charles Elvin said: “As more and more organisations seek to embed a culture of ethical awareness and behaviour, it is crucial to set clear guidelines on what is and is not acceptable within the workplace. Employers may be comfortable with people occasionally using the office printer for personal reasons, but far less so with employees telling lies or running down their colleagues behind their backs. Leaders need to set that benchmark by defining the types of behaviour that will not be tolerated by putting in place a clear ethical statement and leading by example.”

The study highlighted the importance of trust in enabling organisations to raise ethical standards. In high trust organisations people can own up to and talk about ethical breaches without fear, rather than hiding them from their colleagues. This was borne out in the results, as those organisations where staff reported the highest levels of trust were also most likely to own up to their bad behaviours, meaning issues can be identified much earlier and dealt with before they become a more serious problem.

Charles Elvin continued: “While it’s important to deal with individual examples of bad behaviour, it’s also crucial to understand the root cause. If people are covering-up their mistakes, is this a sign of a blame culture that leaves people afraid to be honest? If people are routinely phoning in sick, is there an underpinning issue with stress and workload? In many cases these behaviours are symptomatic of wider cultural issues which once uncovered can be effectively addressed to improve morale and organisational performance and ultimately help to avert crises and better equip businesses for the future.”