The Ethics Resource Center (ERC) – a research-oriented nonprofit aimed at promoting high ethical standards in business – released its 2011 National Business Ethics Survey (NBES) report recently.

Turns out the past couple years have been a pretty mixed bag for whistleblowers. So… good news or bad news first?

Let’s start with the good news. The percentage of corporate employees surveyed who said they’ve seen misconduct at work fell to just 45 percent, compared to 49 percent in 2009 and a record high of 55 percent in 2007. On the flip side, the number of those who are reporting that misconduct at work is at a record high – 65 percent. This is up an impressive 12 points from 2005 (53 percent).

This is an uplifting trend. Employees are witnessing less misconduct at work, but when it happens, it is more likely to report it. This is one of the most effective ways to ensure the misconduct levels stay low.

Now for the bad news. The ERC also reports “ominous warning signs of a potentially significant ethics decline ahead.” Retaliation against employees who reported misconduct rose 10 points from 2007 to 22 percent. That’s more than one in five who faced some sort of retaliation for their disclosure. In addition, 42 percent of companies are reported to have weak ethics cultures, a steep rise from 35 percent two years ago. More employees (13 percent) are feeling pressure to compromise their ethical standards since 2000.

The ERC says these two rather opposing trends are unlike any previous patterns in past years’ reports. The organization identifies the economy and increased social networking as two of the driving forces behind them. How? Well, misconduct being down and reporting of it being up is occurring while many are still anxious about the possibility of a second recession – Americans are still all too aware of the long term effects of corporate misconduct (page 12). And employees who are active social networkers experience much higher pressure to conform to misconduct and face higher retaliation rates (page 13).

As the Project on Government Oversight explained in a recent blog post, a supplement to this study,Inside the Mind of the Whistleblower, seems to disprove the argument Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) makes for stripping financial whistleblower protections: that whistleblowers will start to report solely outside the company for a financial reward, not giving companies the opportunity to supposedly act properly and correct their mistakes. In reality, the survey shows, only two percent would report outside the company first, and about one in 20 said they were motivated by financial reward.

But it seems whistleblowers are in good company, with a majority of those who witness misconduct choosing to report it. The more information available to employees about their rights and blowing the whistle, the more employees will be willing to step forward. In fact, this has been one of the main goals of GAP’s successful American Whistleblower Tour – educating our youth about how whistleblowers make a difference, and what their rights are. You can find more information on that here.