The Research Is In: Busy People Are Less Compliant

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Demanding work environments are common today. But new research has identified a previously hidden cost to pressure-filled organizations, says Gretchen Gavett of the Harvard Business Review: “neglecting those secondary tasks that, while not as visible or lauded by your boss, might be essential to the safety or ethics of your organization.”

The research monitored hand washing in hospitals, which is secondary to a caregiver’s primary task of patient care. The results showed a strong decline in compliance with this hygiene requirement over the course of a single shift—and an even steeper decline when the work was more demanding.

The conclusion? Constantly shifting focus due to various demands can cause a singular focus on primary tasks. Translated to the ethics and compliance world, when pressure is high, working quickly toward a primary business goal can become more important than thinking carefully about how the goal is achieved.

Excessive Work Pressures Can Crush Ethics

Pressure doesn’t only compromise an individual’s compliance with rules. In the results of a classic research study seminarians were much less likely to help an apparently injured man when placed in a time pressured situation. Ethical and moral standards took a back seat to the seminarians’ primary goal of preparing and delivering a talk to faculty, within an unexpectedly shortened timeframe. In this study, the primary goal trumped ethics.

In addition, as the authors of the book “Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It” assert, ethical reasoning is compromised when our minds are overloaded. In demanding situations, people commonly default to intuitive decision making, which is much faster than carefully weighing benefits and risks of alternate actions—ethical thinking. Unfortunately, intuitive solutions are sometimes very different from thought-out solutions.

Combating Compliance Compromises: What Employers, Employees and Managers Can Do

So how can we reconcile the workplace need for speed and multi-tasking with the need to think through and do what’s right? The best approach involves three important stakeholder groups: employer, employees and managers.


Employer’s Role:

  • Evaluate excessive pressure as a risk in an ethics and compliance risk assessment.
  • Ensure that the board of directors or governing body is aware of areas within the organization where demands are exceptionally high and how the associated risk is being controlled.
  • Consider creating a policy on pressure, including ways to identify and mitigate it so that the entire organization is taking a proactive and consistent approach. Go further to require and track attestations to the policy. This may be novel, but clearly guidance and standards on the topic are needed.
  • Train management on how to detect and manage workplace pressure.
  • Monitor human resources data regarding absenteeism and voluntary terminations. A rise in either or both in a specific area could indicate an unmitigated pressure problem.


Manager’s Role:

  • Watch for signs that pressures are excessive: more overtime, more errors and quality issues, and poor morale. And don’t forget to look for changes in your work group’s attendance and retention.
  • Determine how you can actively reduce demands on those affected by excessive pressures.
  • Be vigilant for side stepping “the little things,” such as double checking for errors, completing documentation or avoiding short cuts. As mentioned, compliance can wane quickly, even over the course of one shift.
  • Educate staff on the potential impact of pressure on their decisions, the importance of keeping standards high and actions they can take to mitigate pressure, such as raising issues to their supervisor, reorganizing or dividing up work, taking breaks or even taking a walk.
  • Remind employees that they need to work at a pace that allows them to remain aligned with their organization’s core values, avoid mistakes and thoughtfully consider their decisions and actions—even when not under pressure.
  • Enforce breaks during times of demand. Encourage staff to take periodic breaks from all electronic screens.
  • Teach employees a way to think through difficult decisions. Such decision models are often in an organization’s Code of Conduct and training courses.


Employee’s Role:

  • Raise a hand when demands are too much to handle.
  • Stay aware of the tendency to focus on the main goal under pressure at the risk of cutting corners.
  • Recognize signs of stress early and do what it takes to dial it down.
  • Do not rush through a sticky decision. Think it through or ask for help.

Final Thoughts

Pressure is an under-recognized risk that can push employees to unintentionally step outside the lines. By designing an approach for prevention, detection and mitigation that includes appropriate stakeholders, potential damage to individuals and the organization from a busy, demanding work environment can be minimized.

A strong corporate culture is a crucial underpinning for any ethics-related initiative. Read “Updating Your Code of Conduct: a Step by Step Approach” for more ideas on bolstering your ethics and compliance program.


Chat with a solutions expert to learn how you can take your compliance program to the next level of maturity.

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