The Wal-Mart corporation, which has very structured cultural rules about how “associates” should look and act, reports to its employees that they are growing more aware of ethics issues. In the April issue of its internal newsletter, modestly called “Wal-Mart World,” the company reports that their Global Ethics Office has just compiled its second annual Ethics Survey. The survey was sent to a random sample of U.S. and international workers in the company. The size sample was not indicated. “The results show improvement in every category,” Wal-Mart Global Ethics reports, “and that the majority of Wal-Mart associates are more aware of and familiar with the Global Ethics Office, the Global Ethics Helpline and the Statement of Ethics.” The first survey was done in August of 2004, shortly after the office was created. Here are the only highlights of the Ethics Survey that Wal-Mart shared with its workers: 90% of those surveyed said they were aware of the fact that the company has an ethics statement, compared to 83% last year. 69% of associates surveyed said they had actually read the company’s ethics statement, up from 60% last year. 55% of workers polled said they had participated in dedicated ethics meetings or training, an increase from 37% last year. 77% said they knew they could call 1-800-WM-Ethics to report an ethical violation, up from only 55% last year. 93% of workers said they were aware of Wal-Mart’s “no retaliation” for employees who use the Open Door policy, an increase from last year’s 85% level. The survey showed that 89% of Wal-Mart workers are aware that the company has a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for workers being pressure to act against company policy, up from 83% last year. 83% of workers said they had the ability to recognize ethical conflicts, up from 75% in 2004. 95% said they had the “courage” to report unethical behavior, and 86% said they felt comfortable calling the toll-free ethics line. Those last two questions were not asked in 2004.
Wal-Mart concludes from this survey that “Ethical Culture” at Wal-Mart “continues to remain strong!” “Wal-Mart’s culture does not tolerate retaliation for reporting suspected unethical conduct including allegations concerning managers who instruct associates to act unethically,” the company explains. “This survey reveals that the majority of associates understands and believes in the culture.” Wal-Mart says these survey results “will be used to design custom communication and education tools to help all associates make the right decision when faced with an ethical dilemma.” But there is a vast difference between being “aware” of ethics, and acting ethically. Wal-Mart tells its workers, “Ethical Courage is Part of Culture! Making ethical decisions is important, and doing the right thing is a focus of the company. As a company, everyone is held to the same ethical standard, regardless of position or title.” The scandal surrounding former top management official Tom Coughlin generated national bad press for Wal-Mart for months, implicating leaders at the top of the company in unethical practices. Wal-Mart “discovered” ethics 40 years after opening its doors, and apparently considered the lack of ethical conduct significant enough that it had to create a Global Ethics Office to incorporate into the Culture. It’s easy for the company to put on a Boy Scout uniform, but much harder to eradicate the time-shaving, off the clock violation lawsuits, gender discrimination litigation, and other ethical woes that tie up the corporation every year in thousands of lawsuits. The legal footnote to Wal-Mart’s annual report to the federal Securities & Exchange Commission keeps getting longer and longer, even as Wal-Mart reports that its workers are more aware of the toll free 1-800 WM Ethics hotline. The company did not, however, report to its workers one of the key statistics to prove their point: how many calls did the ethics hotline actually receive, how many were investigated, and how do those numbers in 2005 compare to 2004? That would be a far better indicator of employee behavior than the “Good News” survey recently shared with its workforce. The Wal-Mart worker who shared this survey with Sprawl-Busters introduced the subject with this note: “I guess we can all sleep soundly at night.” The standing joke about Wal-Mart’s Open Door policy is: if you open your mouth, you’re out the door. For related stories, search Newsflash by “Ethics.”