Beyond Bad Apples: The Dynamic of Ethical Erosion

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

The New Year begins with the long awaited trial of Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, the disgraced leaders of Enron, the company whose name has become synonymous with corporate arrogance, fraud and deception. When the acts of such executives are revealed, it is easy to think that if only we could weed out the “bad apples” we would enjoy ethical business environments. But that wouldn’t be sufficient.

It is true that executives and employees with unethical standards need to be removed, but that alone is far from enough to build and sustain ethical organizations. That challenge rests with all of us. Even well-meaning people in well-meaning organizations are vulnerable to serious acts of unethical behavior; especially when we do not understand the crucial dynamic of ethical erosion.

Wherever we are in the organizational hierarchy, we need to (1) appreciate the erosive nature of unethical behavior, (2) be mindful in sensing ethical dilemmas, (3) talk openly with others and (4) act with clarity and responsibility.

Appreciating the Erosive Nature of Unethical Behavior
The gross unethical acts we read about do not usually occur in a single, massive, event but are the result of a gradual slide from which gross acts are the end result. The challenge we face— if we are not hard-wired unethical people—is that our ethics get eroded over time, one seemingly innocuous step by one seemingly innocuous step. Consider this quote from an ethically-minded executive.

“If you looked at (the decisions we made) without regard to their magnitude, and you asked, ‘Was this right or wrong?’, the answer would be wrong and you know it. Okay? But it’s only a little bit wrong. And I think, in your head, the more you let these little wrongs build up, you start setting these mental precedents that make it is so much easier to slide into doing… bigger and bigger things.”

This dynamic is pervasive. In her book analyzing the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, Diane Vaughan wrote, “Small changes regarding [quality and safety standards]—new behaviors that were slight deviations from the normal course of events— gradually became the norm, providing the basis for accepting additional deviance… the responsible organizations proceeded as if nothing was wrong in the face of evidence that something was wrong.”

The question becomes: how can I stop or reverse the erosion of ethical behavior? One answer is to draw a hard line.

Take the case of an engineering company on the West Coast that provides building inspection services acting as a sub-contractor for local authorities, a situation fraught with potential conflicts of interest. The engineering firm has a policy about accepting gifts from building contractors or any other party that staff members come into contact with, without exception. The staff’s integrity is part of the value proposition. Employees are required not only to reject every offer made to them but to document each one fully. Once, a kind old lady, a tenant in a building that staff were inspecting, offered an employee a box of chocolates as thanks for his work. The offer was declined and documented. Extreme? Not when you take the dynamic of erosion seriously.

Being Mindful in Sensing Ethical Dilemmas
Another critical response is to be alert to ethical dilemmas. Simply put, if you are not sensitive to the occurrence of an ethical dilemma, then you will act blindly and, perhaps, only retrospectively see that there was an ethical situation or risk, and only after you have paid for the negative consequences. Trust your instincts, your gut. If a situation doesn’t feel right, honor that feeling and speak up. It is an important signal and your speaking up will bring about a useful conversation.

This can take courage. None of us wants to slow down the work of the organization or not appear to be a team player by challenging decisions. But to exercise the freedom to speak up and to encourage speaking up as an organization are critical because erosion is subtle and we need to heed the equally subtle signals of an ethical dilemma.

Talking Openly with Others
Ethics is a social phenomenon, meaning an ethical dilemma always affects some other party or person; for example, a client, a colleague, a competitor or our organization. This is important. If we rely on what is going on in our own heads to resolve ethical dilemmas, it is likely that we will come out with a narrow set of options or, worse, explain the dilemma away. We are bound to profit from differing points of view of a situation and that means raising the conversation in meetings, small groups, one-on-one talks and in other organizational forums.

Such conversations are an invaluable aid to the decision process. We are not always faced with a “right” vs. “wrong” decision. Sometimes we may have to decide between two “right” decisions. And our own views are not always complete or correct. In all cases, encouraging a broad range of views makes for a better decision.

This is exactly what happens when the engineering firm mentioned above comes across novel situations. The leaders of the company come together to explore their alternatives and to decide what action they will take, then communicate to all employees a new policy to deal with the situation along with the rationale for the policy.

Acting with Clarity and Responsibility
When you do take mindful action after consultation, then explain the course of action convincingly and without equivocation. Even if your course of action is unpopular, your conviction will usually gain the respect of others, if not their agreement.

And take responsibility for your course of action. By doing so, you will sustain your power and personal authority and encourage others to a similar sense of accountability.

In Conclusion
There are no easy answers in some ethical situations we face. But by being mindful of the ethical dimensions of decisions we make, by exploring what is the best course of action, and by owning up to our actions, we strengthen and sustain ethics in everyday work life and avoid ethical erosion.