Your Ethical Self and the Larger Question of Business Ethics

We see and read about what appears to be obvious lapses of ethical behavior almost on a daily basis and ask “how is that possible”? It appears obvious to anyone learning about these stories for the first time that there was a breech of what is appropriate behavior and we wonder how so many people could be so unethical. We also believe that we certainly would act differently if we were in the same situation.

One reason why otherwise normal individuals may be caught in unethical behavior is because of a social learning process that occurs in all teams and groups. Members of teams and groups learn acceptable and expected behavior by other members and leaders of the team. Over time, a culture evolves that either encourages or discourages certain behavior. Members are even pressured either consciously or subconsciously to conform to what is accepted by the larger group. If the social group in which an individual belongs does not punish negative behavior, or even reinforces inappropriate behavior through the use of direct or indirect rewards, many people who may not behalf inappropriately in normal circumstances, may cross the line and behalf inappropriately in other circumstances.

The Tailhook Association is an association of naval aviators whose annual convention became the center of a sexual scandal because of the 90 sexual harassment charges that resulted from their 1991 convention. In all, 140 aviators were charged. While these men were not participating in such behavior outside of the convention, while at the convention, they felt their behavior was appropriate and undeserving of punishment. These types of incidents had long been known to those in the Navy and those familiar with the organization. The group never had been disciplined for treating women inappropriately.

In fact, most everyone in the military accepted the behavior as appropriate for this type of group and convention. Over the years, a culture had developed within the group that permitted sexually inappropriate behavior to occur. While no one in command would have explicitly rewarded the activity, no one would reprimand anyone for it either. Because it was permitted, the convention became a safe haven for behavior that would have been considered inappropriate in other circumstances. Members “learned” through the lack of punishment and through the tacit acceptance of the behavior that the behavior was accepted and even expected at a Tailhook Convention. It was a place where they could “let their hair down” and have fun, even though they may not have acted the same elsewhere. (Trevino and Nelson, 2005, p. 169).

The public was outraged as to how the men could act the way they did and how the Navy could have allowed such behavior to continue. While the activities seemed obviously inappropriate and unethical to anyone learning about the story for the first time, very few of the men were ever seriously held accountable for the incident. How could the group have developed a culture of such inappropriate behavior? Because, the individuals in the group had received reinforcement through many years of the organization that such behavior was accepted and even expected at Tailhook Conventions. The military did nothing to stop it, which actually encouraged the behavior more. After 1991, they slowly began to change, but still took no drastic action to discipline those involved. This lack of discipline likely reinforced the viewpoint of those involved that the behavior was acceptable and should not be punished.

The implications for other organizations and managers are clear. Rewarding unethical behavior will reinforce the behavior within the organization. Furthermore, even looking the other way and allowing the behavior to continue is a form of reward because it sends the message that the behavior is acceptable. Over time, the behavior can be ingrained in the culture and individuals, who otherwise would otherwise not do so, may begin to feel pressure to conform. Managers must not allow unethical behavior to continue without taking action to correct it. This should include taking actions against those who participate. If the Navy had taken action to punish those involved in sexual harassment at the convention, a clear message would have been sent that the behavior would no longer be accepted, and improvements in behavior may have begun to occur. The same in true in all organizations; managers that may look the other way, while inappropriate behavior occurs in their teams, are inviting unethical behavior to become part of the learned organizational behavior of their teams. Unless, they act to prevent and correct unethical behavior, individuals will continue and new members will be taught and encouraged to begin unethical behavior.

References:

Trevino, L., and Nelson, K., (2005). Corporate social responsibility and managerial ethics. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.