The Ethics Sliding Scale

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on September 20th, 2019 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I am all about ethics.  Ethical behavior is the backbone of trust:  it is hard, if not impossible, to trust someone—or some organization—that doesn’t operate from a platform of ethics.  Nothing will erode the trust in someone or in an organization faster than the revelation that s/he/it engaged in unethical behavior. 

staring eyes

If you have any doubts about this, just look at the impact of the Great Recession on people’s trust in financial institutions:  according to two researchers from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, in 2009 and 2010, only 44% of Americans said they trusted financial institutions—a drop of 31 percentage points from 2006-2007.  Ouch!  Edelman, in its “2019 Edelman Trust BarometerFinancial Services,” notes that though the international trust factor in financial services is currently at 57% among the general public, financial services remain the least trusted sector that Edelman studies.  Double ouch!  (Nonprofits are the most trusted, but not by all that much, sadly.)

A recent study shows that the path to improving trust in a sector may not be all that difficult.  It is as simple as being true to yourself.  In other words, be authentic.  Much has been written about the benefits of authentic leadership.  But it turns out that having every employee be their authentic selves is best for an organization.  Being authentic (identity integration) says that a person doesn’t segregate her/his different identities:  who s/he is at work, at home, with friends, in new situations, etc.; inauthentic happens when those identities are siloed. 

Maryam Kouchaki and colleagues looked at whether there was a link between authenticity/inauthenticity and ethical behavior.  These researchers tested their thinking in three different settings:  two were fabricated situations, while the third used 150 pairs of real supervisors and their direct reports.  The supervised were asked to report on their identity integration, while the supervisors were asked about known unethical behavior by their director reports.  There was a clear correlation between those who were inauthentic (low identity integration) and incidences of unethical behavior, such as falsifying an expense report, cheating, etc.  The researchers conclude that those with low identify integration feel fake (their word, not mine) and feeling fake increases bad, undesirable behavior.  Thus, we would be well-advised to encourage all to bring their authentic selves to work, not leaving that as an instruction for leaders only.

Kouchaki appears to have a similar interest in ethical behavior as I do.  With various sets of colleagues, she’s done other research and found that people are more likely to make ethical missteps in the afternoon rather than the morning (because, apparently, we aren’t as good at self-regulation in the afternoon because we are more tired; now that is scary) or when they are experiencing “ego depletion”—being tired, being uncomfortable, or experiencing the “exhaustion of making constant choices.” 

In yet more research, she, and colleagues looked at why some employees appear to catch more slack from their bosses than others.  It has to do with a boss’ imputed assessment of the situation:  unethical acts thought to have been unintentionally committed are forgiven; those deemed to be intentionally done are not. 

In an experimental setting, Kouchaki and her colleagues showed participants one of four different videos.  In two of the videos, the “employee” confirmed his peppy behavior by saying he was well-rested despite having stayed up late working on a work-related merger (scenario 1) or stayed up watching a sporting event (scenario 2).  In the other two videos, the “employee” appeared tired and blamed it on working late on the merger (scenario 3) or watching a sporting event (scenario 4). 

In each video, at the end, the employee embellishes his expense report.  Participants saw the tired employee as less intentional in his misdeeds and advocated for lighter punishment than the employee who appeared awake and with it and made the exact same mistake.  The researchers repeated the experiment with two changes.  First, instead of videos, participants read one of the four scenarios.  And, second, instead of staying up late to work on a job-related task, the employee stayed up to take care of an ill child.  The results were the same, with one twist:  the tired employees were always treated more leniently than the peppy ones.  But, the employee tired because he was caring for a sick child was treated even more leniently than the employee who stayed up late watching a sporting event. 

Is ethical behavior a sliding scale, such that there can be different levels of tolerance for unethical behavior, based on known or imputed explanations for why the unethical act was committed?  Is ethical behavior on a continuum, such that why a person commits the unethical act can lead to it being bad enough to punish for some reasons and not for others?  Is being unable to bring your authentic self to work that results in engaging in unethical behavior cause for leniency?  And as a long-time teacher, I’ve often wondered just how many sick relatives one person can have.  To question that questions your compassion, and that’s a whole other topic for discussion for another day.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.

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