If you think you can’t be ethically compromised at work, you’re wrong

There are no mustache-twirling villains sowing corruption out there. Most lapses are the result of creeping compromise

 
Peanut Corp. of America CEO Stewart Parnell testifying in Washington
Peanut Corp. of America CEO Stewart Parnell testifying in Washington about salmonella outbreaks in peanut products that killed nine people in 2008. Parnell was sentenced to 28 years in prison in September 2015. (Mark Wilson/Getty)

It’s a bad week for corporate bosses. Volkswagen CEO, Martin Winterkorn, resigned this week in light of revelations that the car maker had, on his watch, falsified emissions tests on what may turn out to be millions of diesel VW’s. Even more dramatically, former Peanut Corporation of America owner, Stewart Parnell, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in a deadly outbreak of salmonella poisoning.

Just how does this sort of thing happen? Are these corporate leaders bad apples? Do they lack a conscience? Are they devoid of normal human scruples? Are these corporate wrongdoings a whole different species from decent, ethical people like you and me? Not necessarily. Members of Mr. Parnell’s family, after all, testified that the man “has a heart always to put others before himself.” Frankly, I don’t doubt it.

The notion that nice, regular folks can, in the right circumstances, do very bad things is not exactly new. Back in the early 60’s, the famous Milgram Experiments provided substantial evidence. In that series of experiments, fully two-thirds of experimental subjects—volunteers from various walks of life—demonstrated that they were willing to administer a lethal dose of electricity to a stranger, just because an authority figure in a white lab coat told them to.

And modern psychology and criminology tell us there are lots of factors that can push good people to do bad things.

One factor is the ethical equivalent of inattentional blindness—failure to see something that is in plain sight. Sometimes this happens because we are so focused on the narrow definition of our own job. Sexual harassment? Dealing with that is not my job, so why would I think it’s a problem, or even notice it?

Another important factor is the slow, steady erosion of our moral sensibilities that goes with incrementally-worsening ethical behaviour. Tell a harmless little lie…then tell a bigger lie…then tell a huge lie. Eventually serious wrongdoing creeps up on you, maybe without even realizing when it was that you crossed that line.

Finally, there’s rationalization, the self-serving process of redescribing our behaviour so that we can accept that we did it without accepting that the thing we did was bad. “I didn’t steal the money, I just took what I deserved.” Or, “Sure, we fudged the numbers, but no one got hurt!” Or, “Yeah, we bent the rules, but everyone does it.” Rationalizations amount to a crummy exercise of critical thinking skills, but they can be pretty psychologically persuasive.

The net result of these various psychological factors is that you too could screw up the way Martin Winterkorn and Stewart Parnell did. If you think you couldn’t—that you’re simply above such behaviour—you’re deluding yourself.

Admitting that this is the case is a good start.

So, what to do? First, beware. You’re human, and so you’re subject to the usual human failures. Second, don’t tolerate rationalizations in others, and don’t ask them to tolerate them in you. Finally, think twice before bending the rules and thinking that you’ll do it “just this one time.” Because down that path lies ruin.

Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and founding co-editor of the Business Ethics Journal Review.

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