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Written by Paul Eccleson on Monday February 27, 2023
UK TV viewers sat in front of the box over Christmas may have inadvertently learned a corporate ethics lesson. In late 2022 the BBC transmitted the reality TV gameshow The Traitors. The concept is simple: 22 contestants perform tasks to build up a prize fund. Some of them are ‘Faithful’ and act for the group. Some are secretly ‘Traitors’ who, if they manage to stay undetected by the others, will steal the prize fund from them.
At the end of each show, all the contestants gather to discuss the day’s events and individually vote out the one person who they feel is a Traitor. What’s striking about the early rounds of the game is how consistent the proposed names are after this discussion. Despite having a pretty large team to choose from, and the votes being written in an anonymous ballot, the group almost unanimously converge on just one or two individuals. Despite there being no objective reason for such unanimity, it’s a strong demonstration that people want to be seen as ‘all being on the same page’ when working as a team.
Unfortunately, this urge to conform can lead to group unethical behaviour. An individual, for example, is much more likely to cheat on a test if they believe that others around them are also cheating.1 If the established ‘social norm’ in an organisation is to bend the rules and be non-compliant, new recruits will pick this up and run with the pack.
Furthermore, if employees have a strong allegiance to their company, they can justify their behaviour to themselves. Employees convince themselves that it is ‘for the good of the company’ that they bend the rules.2 We are very good at telling ourselves stories that justify our behaviours.3 If these self-justifications are really good, we can show no physiological signs of concern at all when we lie and cheat.4 Where we would normally get anxious and sweaty, we remain calm and perfectly dry.
Behavioural scientists term this ability to act unethically for a ‘just’ cause ‘Unethical Pro-organisation Behaviour’, or UPB. You have probably heard such justifications throughout your career – ‘it’s standard business practice’; ‘our competitors are all doing this’; ‘the regulator is being unreasonable’; ‘it’s only a small rule breach’. This is our moral disengagement armoury that we use to put ourselves at ease with our own moral lapses.
An unethical culture will be hard to turn around. A common approach to transgression can be to reprimand and/or discipline individuals. However appealing retribution for human error might be, such approaches can have worsening effects on culture. Public censure of staff leads to reluctance to speak up, defensiveness to auditors and the covering up of mistakes. Rather than learning and improving an organisation, blame cultures make unethical behaviour more common.5 This isn’t an argument for ‘no blame’ cultures, however. Individual responsibility – especially for misdemeanours such as bullying and harassment – will always be a required conclusion. Retribution to individuals can be an unjust response to pressures to ‘get results’ from an investigation, or a consequence of pressure from higher up organisations to ‘close this down fast and move on’. Such pressures should be resisted.
Behavioural science literature offers some help in countering unethical corporate cultures, and the following are recurring themes.
Conformity can be a powerful force for good. If a leader manages to generate a culture of shared goals which generate positive outcomes, this will produce a company with increased productivity and a sense of fulfilment. The same urge to conform can also lead to a toxic culture with an unhealthy atmosphere for employees and customers alike. Whether your career is as a Traitor or a Faithful, understanding group conformity is essential.
 PLOS ONE, ‘Peer Effects in Unethical Behavior: Standing or Reputation?’: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0122305 – accessed February 2023
 Yurtkoru, S & Ebrahimi, N. (2017). ‘The relationship between affective commitment and unethical pro-organizational behavior: the role of moral disengagement’, Pressacademia. 4. 287-295. 10.17261/Pressacademia.2017.706.
 Bandura, A. (2016) “Moral Disengagement : How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves.” New York: Worth Publishers Macmillan Learning.
 OECD, Ideological Altruistic Cheating – Testing Robin Hood in a Lie Detector, 2018: https://www.oecd.org/corruption/integrity-forum/academic-papers/Peleg.pdf – accessed February 2023
 Heraghty D, Rae A, Dekker S (2020), ‘Managing accidents using retributive justice mechanisms: When the just culture policy gets done to you’, Safety Science, Volume 126.
 CIPD, Rotten apples, bad barrels and sticky situations: unethical workplace behaviour, 30 April 2019: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/culture/ethics/ethical-behaviour – accessed January 2023
 Schuster C, Sparkman G, Walton GM, Alles A, Loschelder DD. (2022) ‘Egalitarian norm messaging increases human resources professionals' salary offers to women’. J Appl Psychol. Oct.
 Protect is a UK organisation that can provide help and advice on establishing effective whistleblowing processes. See: https://protect-advice.org.uk/ – accessed January 2023
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