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Why Good People Do Bad Things At Work

Chapter 3: The Corporation, The Real American Idol Part 16 (conclusion)

In my last post, I wrote about a meta-study of over 49,000 people that identified three drivers of unethical behavior at work: people, circumstances, and the corporate culture.  The last post focused on unethical people.  This post examines the elements of circumstances and corporate culture that can lead to unethical decisions.

Circumstance-centric drivers of unethical behavior

When the researchers analyzed what about a given situation can lead to an ethical or unethical decision, it basically came down to one thing: how does the decision maker perceive the consequence to other people?  With a perception of more immediate, severe, or local consequences, an unethical decision is less likely. Conversely, people are more likely to make an unethical decision if the potential consequences are long term, less severe, or will impact people far away.

Cultural drivers of unethical behavior correlate with the values of the organization.

As I have tried to demonstrate throughout this chapter, corporate culture is largely defined by the values and behavior, and certain cultures are more likely to encourage corporate idolatry.  In a similar way, Treviño’s research has shown that it is possible to identify certain elements of corporate culture that encourage unethical behavior.  A company with an “everyone for himself” mentality is much more likely to see unethical behavior than a culture that emphasizes the “wellbeing of multiple stakeholders such as employees, customers and community.”[i]

In addition, the presence of a written code of conduct did not correlate with ethical decisions, but “a properly enforced code of conduct can be a powerful influence on unethical choices.”[ii]  In other words, this paper reinforces the notion that actions and behaviors are the only true test of a value system.  The authors warn that “performance management systems that reward individual bottom-line achievement (no matter how it is achieved) and that failure to discipline self-serving behavior” are likely to give rise to a climate that tolerates unethical decisions.[iii]

As I studied the transcripts from the 80 hours of interviews I conducted for this book, I found corporate idolatry is influenced by the same three things: people, circumstances, and corporate culture.  The details, however, are different.  For example, Trevino found that age does not correlate with ethical behavior, I think it does correlate with corporate idolatry.

So on to Part II of Busting Your Corporate Idol.  The corporate ladder revisited is three chapters that examine how people, circumstances, and corporate culture contribute to a life of corporate idolatry.

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[i] 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):21

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Ibid

Learn How the Experts Characterize a “Bad Apple” At Work

How the Experts Characterize a "Bad Apple" At Work

One bad apple spoils the bunch via Flickr

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:

  • age
  • gender
  • education
  • 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.

Learn How the Experts Characterize a “Bad Apple” At Work is an excerpt from my book Busting Your Corporate Idol, the Five Star Best Seller on Amazon.

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[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