Who do you blame for poor ethical behaviour?

Ethical behaviour can be affected by a range of factors revolving around our perception of the consequences.

Understanding the influence on our own and others’ decisions and actions is complicated. When misconduct happens at work, is it the bad apples, bad barrels or rotten orchards?

In essence, we are trying to attribute responsibility for unethical behaviour to the individual, the organisation or the industry. Is it the person who is bad, or is it that the environment makes good people behave badly? 

Of course, the people and the place are important but do not capture the whole story. Our ethical behaviour is not only affected by who and where we are, but also by the issue we encounter. The actual characteristics of the issue affect how we see it and how we behave in relation to it.

Importantly, the characteristics of the issue influence our ability to recognise the ethical content of the issue so we can turn on our ethical thinking.

A lot of financial or business misconduct occurs in part because people think of the consequences as distant or diffuse. If we rig LIBOR a little, who’s really harmed? For some issues, there’s not always the perceived moral imperative that’s involved in, say, physically hurting someone. The consequences occur a long way away and are hard to see. 

"Is it the person who is bad, or is it that the environment makes good people behave badly?"

The concept of moral intensity describes the issue-related characteristics that affect our ethical awareness, judgement, intention and behaviour. It helps us understand why we may make decisions that harm people in other parts of the world, which we would not have done if the consequences were felt closer to home. It explains why a small amount of harm to many people may not be considered that bad, unlike severe harm to a few people.

For example, we see a small loss in the savings of thousands of people differently to a few people losing all their savings; or we do not pay enough attention to environmental issues when the consequences are incremental and distant.

Moral intensity includes a number of elements, which have been found to affect whether we actually see the moral issue, what we think we should do and what we actually do.

The characteristics of the issue include:
  • Is anyone likely to be harmed or benefit from a possible action? And if so, by how much?
  • Is it likely that a proposed action will actually lead to the harm or benefit? If we think the chances of the harm are very remote, then we may not really consider it. Of course, we have to question our ability to accurately assess the possibilities and we have to remember we tend to underestimate negative ones. 
  • Is there agreement by our social group that the proposed act is actually wrong? This is interesting, because we look for reassurance from our colleagues and if everyone else is doing it, we may not think twice about doing the wrong thing.
  • When are the consequences going to occur? The more distant the time, the less the intensity, so we are likely to discount severe consequences that will happen a long time from now.
  • How close is the decision-maker to those who will be affected by the action? Closeness is about both physical distance and psychological distance. A group of people may be next to us, but we may still consider them strangers. 
  • Are many people going to be harmed greatly or are they going to be harmed a little? The more people are affected a lot, the greater the intensity of the issue. 

Issues with high moral intensity are more likely to turn on our ethical thinking and therefore we are more likely to behave ethically. But that does not mean that issues with low moral intensity do not pose real ethical choices and we are not responsible for them. 

Discussing, reframing and reconsidering issues and their consequences and effects can help us and those who work with us to ensure that all issues are considered fully in ethical terms. 

Read next: How do you stop bad apples?


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