Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 15
Earlier in the chapter, I argued that corporate idolatry is not the same thing as unethical business behavior. However, there is significant overlap, and I read the business ethics literature in hopes of learning what drives people towards idolatry.
I hit the jackpot with a paper by Linda Treviño, one of the leaders in the field of business ethics.[i] Treviño and colleagues did a meta-analysis of 136 prior publications studying the causes of unethical behavior, with a total sample size of 43,914 people. Not surprisingly, any attempt to quantify human behavior is complicated, with many interdependent factors. Nevertheless, there are enough people to do some real statistics, and what the framework she provided helped me understand the 80 hours of interviews I conducted as background for this book. Unethical decisions at work can be traced to three sources: people, circumstances, and the overall company culture.[ii]
People-centric drivers of unethical behavior
In general, Trevino showed that people who look out for number one are more likely to make unethical choices. In addition, the data showed a statistically significant correlation between unethical behavior and the following personality characteristics:
- a relative moral philosophy (i.e. values change with circumstances, which also is one of the key characteristics of idolatry.)
- a propensity to manipulate others
- an inability to see a connection between his or her own actions and consequences to other people
Equally interesting were the characteristics that did not correlate with unethical choices:
- level within the organization.
The latter finding was particularly disturbing to the authors because “integrity tests are most often used with lower level employees.”[iii]
Go to the next post to learn how circumstances and corporate culture impact ethical decisions.
[i] Linda Treviño is Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behavior and Ethics, and Director of the Shoemaker Program in Business Ethics in the Smeal College of Business at Penn State University. She is the author of over 70 articles as well as several books.
[ii] Bad Apples, Bad Cases, and Bad Barrels: Meta-Analytic Evidence About Sources of Unethical Decisions at Work. Kish-Gephart JJ, Harrison DA, Treviño LK. . J Appl Psychol. 2010 Jan;95(1):1-31. Abstract.
[iii] Ibid p.20