During my career, I have come across several instances of unethical behavior, conducted by intelligent, liked, trusted and otherwise apparently good people. I have dealt with investigations and cases where these “normal” people were found involved in i.e. cheating, theft, embezzlement, fraud, corruption or harassment.

I still, after all these years, get kind of surprised when a colleague is found tangled into misconduct, despite being exposed to espoused values, policies, training and several layers of internal controls. A longstanding question in my mind is: How come that upfront good people make clearly bad ethical decisions?

Last week, I attended the Nordic Ethics & Compliance Summit in Stockholm. Generously arranged and setup by two great peers – Erica Wikman and Michaela Ahlberg, the summit offered quality presentations and a red thread re people and their role in a companys ethical eco-system.

Guido Palazzo gave an eyeopening presentation that instantly provided me with a plausible explanation for a number of ethical cases. Supported by a research, Guido argued that context and belief systems are far stronger than facts and circumstances. When people are exposed to a certain culture, way of doing things, particular lingo or excessive performance pressure, they tend to overlook, forget and disregard company policies, the facts, and even the law and their own inner moral – they become subject to, what Guido calls, Ethical Blindness.

An example

A sales engineer with a somewhat unrealistic sales target, managed by a seasoned industry-savvy sales director, in a team where war language and peer pressure is normal and in a location distant – both geographically and cultural – from the company HQ. Despite a strong code of ethics, specific rules and guidelines, the sales engineer is under risk to stray away from the companys ethical path, caught up by the context, gradually expanding the perceived ethical boundaries. All without sensing it and with a high risk of ending up in a case using the useless excuse: I couldn’t help it!

What to do?

While this behavioral pattern is closely related and part on human nature, @Guido proposed a couple of practical measures that may help people stay on the right path. Providing people with reference points that will help them stay on course and minimize the risk of gradually becoming ethical blind. These ethical sign posts could include clear, measurable rules re gifts and hospitality. Regular and independent review of actual behavior vs policy. A facilitated assessment of the true “tone at the top”. Due to the slow lure into unethical land it could be helpfull for to consider outside-in challenge, think regular wake-up calls and utilization of rotation & the matrix organisation.

A recently released paper by Oliver J. Sheldon and Ayelet Fishbach provides additional suggestions on how to make better ethical decisions when faced with dilemmas – e.g. the dillema between short term meeting sales target and long term living up to a companys ethical standards. They suggest that, upfront awareness of an upcoming temptation is likely to establish a sense of guilt. A sense that in turn should strengthen the individuals self-control – leading to better ethical decision making.