Are Ethics Just for Suckers?

In one of the most memorable scenes from “The Office,” Michael Scott reworks an Olivia Newton-John classic into “Let’s Get Ethical,” then proceeds to draw out a wide range of employee confessions—everything from the occasional long lunch to an exchange of intimate relations for supplier discounts and steak dinners. Although “The Office” was a TV show, it was funny because it was rooted in reality, and you might see enough questionable behavior in your own workplace to be left wondering if you should bother worrying about ethics.

You won’t be surprised to hear the answer is yes. Read on to learn why.


The research on ethics

Without going back to the days of Plato and Aristotle or your college philosophy class, it’s important to consider why behavioral norms are so valuable. Without them, our lives would be a noisy, disorganized mess. Without a common understanding of “good” behavior, driving would be completely dangerous, movie theaters would always be loud, and we would push and shove instead of forming lines at the grocery store.

The same is true at work, where behavioral norms typically include arriving on time, keeping your workspace tidy, and not microwaving fish. But you may see your colleagues taking shortcuts of all types and wonder if you are the only one following the rules. The Ethics & Compliance Initiative is a nonprofit organization that has studied workplace ethics for more than 20 years, with a specific focus on five “ethics outcomes:”

  • Strength of ethical culture
  • Pressure to compromise ethical standards
  • Observations of misconduct
  • Reporting of misconduct
  • Retaliation for reporting misconduct.

In good news, one in five U.S. employees reported being in workplaces with a strong ethical culture in 2020, compared with one in 10 in the year 2000. However, they also reported increased pressure to compromise their ethics in 2020, with one-third reporting such pressure. A similar percentage had observed misconduct—primarily in the forms of employee favoritism, lying to employees, and conflicts of interest. Of those who observed misconduct, 86 percent chose to report it—and among reporters, 82 percent perceived retaliation for making such a report. It’s no wonder the pressure to cut corners is increasing, along with the perceived need not to say anything about it.

Why small ethical infractions lead to bigger problems

You may have heard of the “broken window theory” of social science: One broken window left unrepaired inevitably leads to more, because if no one cares about the first window, what’s the difference? Although this theory has been applied with controversy in approaches to community policing, it relates to workplace ethics. If you get away with a long lunch one week or going back-to-school “shopping” in the office supply closet, it becomes more tempting to do so the next time. And if your colleagues know you’re doing it, why not try it themselves?

Another relevant theory is that of the fraud triangle. An otherwise ethical person may be tempted to commit fraud when three circumstances collide: motivation, often in the form of personal financial pressure; opportunity, such as access to company finances; and rationalization, or “everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?” It’s a slippery slope from making personal copies at the office to expensing lunches unnecessarily and even more serious forms of ethical violation.

How to build an ethical culture

Michael Scott was starting from the right place in terms of strengthening the ethical culture of his workplace. Providing training for employees where they can think through ethical scenarios is important to raise awareness. Some employees may not even view their actions as unethical. Researchers at Northwestern University and Brigham Young University recommend training employees to put their decisions to a few tests. Would they feel comfortable if their decision received publicity? What would happen if everyone made this decision? And will they be proud of themselves for making this decision?

Such training helps employees keep ethics top of mind, even without Olivia Newton-John song parodies.

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