Before an ethical decision can be made, a person must first know that the ethical question exists. Absent anyone to point it out, one has to intuit that honesty and honor are at stake. A quiet bell rings in the ear. A thought hesitates speech. Without this awareness, a person is powerless to make wise choices.
What does it take to remain authentic, in touch with one’s core values? Especially in business, where some corporate cultures value quarterly earnings and shortcuts over long-term company growth and concern for fellow human beings.
Self-deception and disguise, often unconscious, blur and fade ethical questions, said Management Professor Ann Tenbrunsel whose recently published research shows that people do not always “see” the ethics in an ethical dilemma.
“Self-deception causes the moral implications of a decision to fade, allowing individuals to behave incomprehensibly and, at the same time, not realize that they are doing so,” she writes in the paper “Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior,” which she co-authored with David Messick.
Tenbrunsel’s research integrates psychology and behavioral economics into the field of business ethics. At this intersection, she believes that questions of inquiry, which look at questions of “ought” in ethical decision-making, should be accompanied by descriptive examinations, which explore the questions of “how” decisions are made.
She has found that a number of elements contribute to our ability to deceive ourselves and whitewash ethical dilemmas. Importantly among these are language euphemisms such as “aggressive” accounting practices (rather than illegal ones), “collateral damage” in military campaigns (rather than civilians dead), and “right sizing” (rather than layoffs). Language and word choice are powerful tools in suggesting the presence or absence of ethics.
“Through renaming actions we take and relabeling decisions we make, we turn what may be unacceptable into socially approved behaviors,” the paper states. It goes on to say that this process helps to “illustrate the tendency to replace morally repugnant language with more abstract and neutral terms.” Other similar phrases that Tenbrunsel notes are “transaction costs, profit maximization, and rationalization,” which she warns can be “devoid of the human and potential ethical dimensions of decisions.”
Tenbrunsel’s research also shows that people don’t wake up one morning and decide to make an unethical choice, but instead make a series of many small, incremental choices that start out above-board but decline unaware, over time into unethical behavior.
“If each step away from ethical and acceptable practices is sufficiently small, small enough not to appear qualitatively different, then a series of these small steps can lead to a journey of unethical and illegal activities,” Tenbrunsel writes.
For example, Tenbrunsel recounts a case in which a “straight arrow” executive, under pressure to produce financial returns that would enable the company to go public, allowed sales reps to post unsigned sales a few days early to meet financial targets. Over time, the days stretched into weeks, and eventually it was uncertain whether the sales would materialize. Finally, reps were forging customers’ signatures.
In addition to these findings, Tenbrunsel’s research shows that the victim impacted by a decision can also be important. The larger the group, for example, the greater the potential for an unethical decision.
“The more victims impacted by my action, the more the decision becomes statistical in nature,” Tenbrunsel says. “However, once I personalize the targets of my behavior, just by giving them last names, for example, that in fact increases the extent to which I am honest. So the anonymity of our targets, or victim’s ambiguity, who is really hurt, also is one of those factors that causes us to not see the ethical implications of our decisions.”
Her research also shows that the way people perceive situations is often erroneous, causing them to more frequently focus on people rather than systems, assign blame in self-interested ways, and commit acts of omission. She says it is nearly impossible to ask people to view situations objectively since they are limited by their own history and experience. Self-deception leads a person to either eliminate negative ethical implications of a decision or distort them into positive characteristics, Tenbrunsel states.
These findings have significant implications for ethics training in business schools and corporations. According to Tenbrunsel, most ethics training focuses on ethical theory, ethical principles and application of principles to case studies. However, she argues that missing from this paradigm is the acknowledgement that individuals have a psychological tendency not to “see” the ethical dilemma in the first place because of self-deception. When ethical fading has occurred, a person does not code a decision as ethical, but instead views it as a business, economic, legal or personal decision, she writes.
In the workplace, promoting ethical behavior is multi-faceted, her research finds. Environmental cues in the workplace—such as surveillance systems, formal and informal codes of conduct, communication systems, sanctioning practices, and organizational climates—guide employees’ thinking about ethical behavior. Introducing the term “ethical infrastructure,” Tenbrunsel’s research suggests that companies can reduce unethical behavior by ensuring that all of these organizational elements are in line. She discusses this in “Building Houses on Rocks: The Role of the Ethical Infrastructure in Organizations,” which she co-authored with Kristin Smith-Crowe and Elizabeth Umphress.
“Traditional ethical fixes focus on the more visible formal systems (codes of conduct, ethics departments, ombudsmen), which while important, are relatively weak in comparison to the more hidden, and more difficult to correct, informal systems and accompanying organizational climates,” Tenbrunsel writes.
“Formal systems might be the reward and punishment system as stated in the HR code of conduct book,” Tenbrunsel says. “But informal might be who really gets rewarded. It’s the people that get the sales no matter what they do. Those have a stronger influence than what is really written in the books.”
Tenbrunsel identifies three climates to pay attention to: climates of ethics, justice and respect. She emphasizes that organizations have to pay attention to the legends, symbols and informal stories that people tell about the company. This is a way for managers to get underneath and examine the values a company is promoting, consciously or otherwise.
In addition to understanding the components of ethical infrastructure, Tenbrunsel says, it is also important to understand how systems designed to promote ethical behavior can actually have counterproductive effects. She found, for example, that the presence of a weak monitoring system, designed to increase ethical behavior, ironically reduced the likelihood that individuals saw the decision as an ethical one and led them to act unethically. Thus, not only do managers need to recognize and develop these components within an organization, she says, but they also need to understand psychologically how these components contribute to self-deception and potentially fade the ethics from a decision.
Professor Ann Tenbrunsel has done extensive research in the areas of decision making, negotiations and ethics. Tenbrunsel co-authored “Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior,” which appeared in Social Justice Research in 2004, with David Messick. She co-authored “Building Houses on Rocks: The Role of the Ethical Infrastructure in Organizations,” which appeared in Social Justice Research in 2003, with Kristin Smith-Crowe and Elizabeth Umphress.
—Rachel Reynolds is the Director of Feature Writing at Mendoza College of Business and managing editor of Notre Dame Business.