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Why good employees do bad things

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When a goal becomes a fixation of a person or company, everything else (including ethical considerations), can fall by the wayside.

When a goal becomes a fixation of a person or company, everything else (including ethical considerations), can fall by the wayside. Photo: Emrah Turudu

The potential costs of unethical behaviour are extremely high. It can badly hurt a company's reputation — and sometimes ends in a lawsuit.

Still, year after year there are cases ranging from minor fraud at a small business to giant accounting scandals that have rocked the business world.

In the new white-paper Why Good People Sometimes Do Bad Things: 52 Reflections On Ethics At Work, Rotterdam School of Management professor Muel Kaptein explores the behavioural and psychological reasons why people step over the line. Here are a few of his key insights on how lapses occur, and what businesses can do to promote a more ethical culture.

1. Organisations and people develop tunnel vision. Setting and achieving goals is an essential part of any successful business. When employees have challenging and measurable goals, they've been shown to work harder, be more persistent and have better self awareness.

When a goal becomes a fixation of a person or company, everything else (including ethical considerations), can fall by the wayside.

When Enron offered large bonuses to employees for bringing in sales, they became so focused on that goal that they forgot to make sure they were profitable or moral. We all know how that ended.

Being conscious of the type of goals being set, the behaviours they encourage, and putting them in a larger context is an important skill.

2. The power of names makes unethical behaviour seem trivial. When bribery becomes "greasing the wheels" or accounting fraud becomes "creative bookkeeping," what's at least wrong and possibly criminal is brought down closer to the level of a joke between friends. Nicknames separate actions from their moral implications, making each subsequent instance seem less important until it becomes a normal practice.

Staying alert to these euphemisms and making ethical divisions crystal clear can arrest such behaviour before it escalates.

3. How good behaviour leads to bad. Counterintuitively, doing the right thing can lead to bad behaviour in the future. One phenomenon Kaptein mentions is the compensation effect. When people have been model employees for a long time, they feel as though they've banked up a kind of "ethical credit". Research from Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong found that people who have just bought sustainable products tend to lie and steal more afterwards than those who bought standard versions.

Another issue is the "free rider" problem. That refers to situations where the norm is ethical, and the total damage of bad behaviour is limited. Someone might think "If nobody in an area pollutes, they won't notice if I do it just this once."

4. Deadlines can cause moral blindness. Time pressure is inevitable in the workplace. Many people seek it out and do their best work in such situations. However, it can have negative ethical consequences.

In research cited by Kaptein, a group of theology students were told to preach the story of the good Samaritan, then walk to another building where they'd be filmed. Along the way, they encountered a man in visible distress.

When given ample time, almost all helped. When they were deliberately let out late, only 63 per cent helped. When encouraged to go as fast as possible, 90 per cent ignored the man.

Focusing on a deadline blinds people to those around them and to the consequences of their actions. Making time for reflection needs to be a priority for organisations.

Business Insider

10 comments so far

  • Fascinating article. Other impacts on employees are watching managers ride roughshod over code of conduct and ethical provisions when it suits them and then take the high moral ground when hectoring staff.

    Commenter
    Mallick
    Location
    South Brisbane
    Date and time
    October 04, 2012, 11:48AM
    • Good point!
      There are mutliple reasons why people do bad things ; this article only looks at a couple of reasons and excuses the behaviour anyway.
      Some people have different ethical standards, e.g. a professional thief will often blame the person who leaves their things around where a thief could take them, Likewise in "business" a person may add 10% to a bill and it's the fault of the person who didn't question it.
      A lot of big business is just a form of legitimised theft, anyway, e.g. selling products a person has no real use for. Once you're selling this kind of rubbish, you have tossed quite a few scruples out of the window already. Good examples of this would be advertising, public relations -- and even pseudo-psychological research into workplace behaviours.

      Commenter
      L. Beau Bendon-Stretton
      Date and time
      October 08, 2012, 6:41AM
  • And most of these things that cause people to act unethically are proudly promoted by too many organisations as examples of their "Efficiency" and ability to deliver maximum profits - and we still invest in them either directly or indirectly.

    Makes you wonder who is really responsible when the capitalist system that we gladly use to make our lives more comfortable constantly pushes against ethical behaviour and we continually reward that push, doesn't it?

    Commenter
    DC
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    October 04, 2012, 5:23PM
    • "Research from Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong found that people who have just bought sustainable products tend to lie and steal more afterwards than those who bought standard versions."

      Read more: http://www.watoday.com.au/executive-style/management/why-good-employees-do-bad-things-20121004-270k3.html#ixzz28KroH1gj

      Oh, really? So someone who buys a Prius is more likely to what- pilfer from the stationery cupboard, take the cheesecake from the office fridge, lie about not having sexual relations with that woman?

      Who on earth are Mazar and Cheng when they are at home, and why should we believe the spurious rubbish that they sprout anyway?

      Commenter
      Guitar69
      Date and time
      October 04, 2012, 11:17PM
      • The real issue is that when people do the wrong thing, and they aren't 'picked up' the flaws are exposed. people generally go to work to do a good job; one of the traits not mention in the cited research is that the way a leader/manager behaves is reflected in the employee. Clear and unequivocal expectations, constantly reinforced by management and peers means that when someone does something unethical, it is a conscious decision to break the rules - whatever happens AFTER that, should be a logical, well known follow-on, and should have been posted by the organisation.
        there's a blog ( i think it's www.performanceimprovement.com.au) where whoever it is talks about just this type of stuff

        Commenter
        ThingsToCome
        Date and time
        October 05, 2012, 4:06PM
        • Or as I see every day. An elitist management group with a culture of belittlement and condescension. If they don't care then why should I?

          Commenter
          Voiceofreason
          Date and time
          October 05, 2012, 4:27PM
          • It's funny how everyone is always "a good person", even the most crooked.

            Commenter
            John
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            October 06, 2012, 7:13AM
            • Amusing. Ethics. Most companies exist to make profit. Bottom line. From this perspective ethics is very low on the priority scale.

              Commenter
              ethics haha
              Date and time
              October 06, 2012, 12:02PM
              • I actually worked in a place where the office bully was in a totally unprofessional relationship with a senior manager; people were harassed and bullied out of the workplace; time sheets for managers were a figment of the imagination; the corporate card, used by managers, was a personal expense account; and other things just , well, 'went on'.

                In a business, the rot starts from the top. When you worry too much about the shade of black your BMW is and not about your staff....as the carpenter said when joining two bits of wood...this is screwed...

                Commenter
                ThingsToCome
                Date and time
                October 08, 2012, 7:46AM
                • The real reason behind why good people do bad things is the lack of moral culpability, everyone reports to someone, everyone is doing something for someone else. An employee does what the manager tells them to do, the manager is doing what the executive tells them to do, whilst the executive is doing what is best for the shareholders. No one has any real moral responsibility.

                  Commenter
                  james
                  Location
                  sydney
                  Date and time
                  October 08, 2012, 10:31AM

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