If You Think You Can’t be Ethically Compromised at Work, You’re Wrong

It’s a bad week for corporate bosses. Volkswagen CEO, Martin Winterkorn, resigned this week in light of revelations that the car maker had, on his watch, falsified emissions tests on what may turn out to be millions of diesel VW’s. Even more dramatically, former Peanut Corporation of America owner, Stewart Parnell, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for his role in a deadly outbreak of salmonella poisoning.

Just how does this sort of thing happen? Are these corporate leaders bad apples? Do they lack a conscience? Are they devoid of normal human scruples? Are these corporate wrongdoings a whole different species from decent, ethical people like you and me? Not necessarily. Members of Mr Parnell’s family, after all, testified that the man “has a heart always to put others before himself”. Frankly, I don’t doubt it.

The notion that nice, regular folks can, in the right circumstances, do very bad things is not exactly new. Back in the early 60’s, the famous Milgram Experiments provided substantial evidence. In that series of experiments, fully two thirds of experimental subjects — volunteers from various walks of life — demonstrated that they were willing to administer a lethal dose of electricity to a stranger, just because an authority figure in a white lab coat told them to.

And modern psychology and criminology tell us there are lots of factors that can push good people to do bad things.

One factor is the ethical equivalent of inattentional blindness — failure to see something that is in plain sight. Sometimes this happens because we are so focused on the narrow definition of our own job. Sexual harassment? Dealing with that is not my job, so why would I think it’s a problem, or even notice it?

Another important factor is the slow, steady erosion of our moral sensibilities that goes with incrementally-worsening ethical behaviour. Tell a harmless little lie…then tell a bigger lie…then tell a huge lie. Eventually serious wrongdoing creeps up on you, maybe without even realizing when it was that you crossed that line.

Finally, there’s rationalization, the self-serving process of redescribing our behaviour so that we can accept that we did it without accepting that the thing we did was bad. “I didn’t steal the money, I just took what I deserved.” Or, “Sure, we fudged the numbers, but no one got hurt!” Or, “Yeah, we bent the rules, but everyone does it.” Rationalizations amount to a crummy exercise of critical thinking skills, but they can be pretty psychologically persuasive.

The net result of these various psychological factors is that you too could screw up the way Martin Winterkorn and Stewart Parnell did. If you think you couldn’t — that you’re simply above such behaviour — you’re deluding yourself.

Admitting that this is the case is a good start.

So, what to do? First, beware. You’re human, and so you’re subject to the usual human failures. Second, don’t tolerate rationalizations in others, and don’t ask them to tolerate them in you. Finally, think twice before bending the rules and thinking that you’ll do it “just this one time.” Because down that path lies ruin.

5 comments so far

  1. nexdec on

    Hi Chris- good post!

    “So, what to do? First, beware.” I would add “and also be aware”

    BTW, I have a bit of a different conclusion about the CEO at VW. Yesterday I wrote this post. http://bit.ly/1Ozuh3A

  2. charlesgreen on

    Agree. There’s an unfortunate tendency to demonize individuals (not that some top leaders shouldn’t be held accountable), and to trivialize the impact of social conditions on ethical behavior.

    In addition to “beware,” I’d suggest outsiders be wary of their attempt to find black and white and individual culpability – that kind of blamethrowing just perpetuates a sense of embattled resistance on the part of largely well-intentioned employees in the firm.

  3. Peter Chadwick on

    Volkswagen failed to live up to its own exemplary corporate values statement. Most businesses are ethical, but too many high profile scandals feed the anti-capitalist narrative that business is intrinsically bad. Business urgently needs to learn how to bridge the corporate values gap: http://www.iedp.com/Blog/VW-and-the-Corporate-Values-Gap

  4. Josh T on

    Finally, there’s rationalization, the self-serving process of redescribing our behavior so that we can accept that we did it without accepting that the thing we did was bad.

    Chris McDonald
    I enjoyed reading your post. You made three really great points regarding the issues at Volkswagen. The quote I copied from your post above is very interesting to me. I’m currently taking an Organizational behavior class for my masters program, during this class we studied how values can have conflict internally, interpersonally, and organizationally. If Volkswagen as a whole wants to have an organization that focuses on positive values it seems to me that maybe they have not set the values clearly in the organization. Although I believe rationalization can happen to anyone, maybe if, as a company, they were able to clearly describe right from wrong within the organization someone would have felt that the decisions being made did not fit with the companies values. This would lead to a noticeable conflict either between employees or personally among one person that would eventually cause enough of a stir for leaders within the company to see what was going on and help to dissolve the issue. What are your thoughts on this?
    Thank you
    Josh Trammell

    • Chris MacDonald on

      I suspect — but it’s just a guess — that a pattern of rationalization was rampant within the company. It would have been almost essential for employees to think of VW as a “good company”…otherwise no one would be able to face themselves in the mirror the next day.


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