What Makes Good People Do Bad Things? The Roots of Unethical Behaviour in Life and Work

The Root Cause of Unethical Behavior

The memory of ethics catastrophes at firms large and small like Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, and Hewlett-Packard elevated public bitterness toward corporate executives as never before. Unethical behavior has spoiled the public’s conviction about the inherent goodness in people and spawned charges for more government oversight of private industry.

In free societies, many people identify with Milton Friedman’s laissez faire principle that if society lets its people pursue their personal and professional interests in the context of a capitalistic framework to operate without restraint, positive principled intentions and ethical consequences will naturally ensue. On the contrary, it turns out that most people unaware of the divergence between how ethical people think they are and how ethical they actually are.

Why do people behave unethically? Why do some employees engage in unethical acts such as lying on an expense account, accepting kickbacks, falsifying reports, and forging signatures? One or more of these root cause factors might be at play in unethical behavior:

  • Poor ethical leadership
  • Poor communications
  • Pressure to balance work and family
  • Pressure to meet sales or profit goals
  • Lack of management support
  • Resentment to the workplace and retaliation
  • Company policies
  • Little or no recognition of achievements
  • Long work hours, heavy workload
  • Personal financial worries
  • Insufficient resources

In the modern societies, with eroding adherence to personal and societal values, the temptation to behave in unethical ways is not going to go away. As young professionals go into business today, the enticement to evade ethics is mounting. We live in a time of deep obligation on individuals and organizations to cut corners, pursue their own personal and professional interests, and forget about the consequences of their behavior on others.

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