How to prevent unethical behaviour taking root

From little things, big things grow.

Unethical behaviour may start small, then expand to widespread organisational misconduct. How do you stop bad behaviour taking root?

If there’s one important lesson to take from the many examples of widespread organisational misconduct, it’s that things go downhill slowly. 

At Wells Fargo, for example, where more than two million fake customer accounts were opened by thousands of employees, it all started with the goal of every customer having eight accounts with the bank. It was called the “Gr-eight” initiative. 

This goal soon became a requirement, a quota that was very closely controlled and measured, and employees started meeting it through misconduct. They would lie to customers by telling them that some accounts were only available in a bundle with other accounts, or they would just open up accounts that were not requested nor authorised, sometimes by recording customers’ email addresses as “[email protected]”. 

"Often the road to unethical behaviour is slow, allowing it to become rationalised, normalised and accepted."

Wells Fargo fired 5300 of its employees over the fraud and last year was fined US$185 million by various regulators. Yet who was to blame? The Los Angeles City Attorney argued that the quotas imposed by Wells Fargo on its employees were unattainable, because not enough customers came through a branch on a daily basis.

Often, the road to unethical behaviour is slow, allowing it to become rationalised, normalised and accepted. People are more likely to steal big amounts of money after they start with small ones. From small unethical actions, big ones grow! 

The more that wrongdoing is practised, the more it becomes part of an individual’s or organisation’s character. 

How can you weed out unethical behaviour before it becomes a problem?

Don’t turn a blind eye to any unethical actions, no matter how small. There is nothing small about a little stealing or cheating. It can have a toxic effect and spread in width and depth. When you call out even small acts of misconduct, you reinforce what is and is not acceptable. You hold a mirror up to those who may be rationalising their own unethical behaviour. 

Eliminate pressure. You don’t have to explicitly ask people to do something wrong to be encouraging unethical behaviour. If what you expect and reward cannot be achieved in the right way, people are very likely to get there through misconduct.

Professional Development: Professional ethics - a practical guide: gain an understanding, or refresher, of ethics and what it means in practical terms for day to day purposes.

Pressure can be exerted through objectives, rewards and resources, especially time. People are more likely to behave unethically if they feel they don’t have time to reflect and deliberate. Time pressure may also make them feel less responsible, as they might think they’re helping someone fulfil their needs and are not really doing anything wrong. 

If you think about it, often when people ask someone to do something unethical, they present it as being insignificant, but it’s almost always very urgent! A person may feel they don’t have much of a choice, nor a lot of responsibility either. 

Small deviations from acceptable ways to achieve goals are always serious. There can be no compromise on how you achieve objectives. 

Read next: Culture is key to understanding wrongdoing in the workplace

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