Workplace Ethics – Tolerating Unethical Behaviour

What happens when there is unethical behaviour in the workplace that appears to be tolerated. What impact does that have on workplace ethics?

According to research by Tang and Chen, “nearly 60 per cent of managers will be pressured to behave unethically over the course of their careers and 50 per cent will actually do so on at least one occasion.”

Dr Jeffrey Overall, Assistant Professor at the School of Business, Nipissing University, Canada, explains this is not because the business world is dominated by corrupt individuals driven by greed or guided by weak moral development. Dr Overall believes the average business person is quite ethically minded. It’s just that we can all find ourselves in positions where we feel coerced or compelled to make decisions contrary to our beliefs.

Some examples of unethical behaviour range from relatively benign activities including taking advantage of office supplies and printing personal materials at work to making false reports, covering up mistakes and large scale theft and fraud. (Might I also suggest that annoying behaviours like dropping litter at work or not washing your own coffee cup and dishes are also examples of unethical behaviour?)

What are the costs?

The frustration and outrage felt by colleagues leads to team dysfunction, lack of trust and cynicism – all resulting in a lack of productivity and possibly the departure of staff whose values clash with what they see around them as being condoned behaviour.

Employee theft costs businesses hundreds of billions of dollars yearly.  Manipulation in the banking and financial services sector has led to crisis for individuals, companies and national and international markets, causing widespread social and economic impacts. Then there are the decisions by major international companies which have caused devastating environmental disasters.

So why does it seem unethical behaviour is tolerated in the workplace?

Unethical behaviour is much easier to judge by someone external to the situation and not affected by the pressures associated with the myriad of factors impacting on the decision making process.

The two main reasons humans behave unethically are:

1)    With cognitive moral development, we are more likely to make ethically based decisions more often. However, we are neurologically wired to protect ourselves (relating to things like financial security or role status etc.) and there will be situations at work that we encounter which create an overwhelming sense of threat and in those moments, we will make decisions that minimise or eliminate the threats and address our immediate concerns.

2)    When under threat, we have limited capacity to think logically and process all of the available information. We have limited ability to remain objective and tend to make quick decisions at the expense of further research, accuracy and challenging our biased perceptions of the situation. We can be very good at rationalising the distorted perceptions that led to our unethical behaviour to make it seem morally acceptable to ourselves and others.

Why do managers tolerate unethical behaviour?

1)    Their own levels of cognitive moral development may not support them to recognise unethical behaviour in themselves or others;

2)    They usually encourage expedient decision making (in themselves and by others); or

3)    They are easily led to believe someone’s rationalisation story (because they do sound very plausible and believable).

What can be done to curb unethical behaviour in the workplace?

1)    All staff should be trained in the art of ethical decision making;

2)    Managers should be upskilled to chair meetings to achieve constructive debate (including encouragement for collecting all relevant information and searching for opposing opinions) for optimum outcomes even if it means delaying making final decisions; and

3)    Managers should be prepared to recognise and challenge the rationalisation story.

Here at Workplace Harmony Solutions, we now offer ethical leadership modules tailored to your organisation and focusing on challenging bias and using a variety of decision making strategies. Contact us today for more information on 1 300 227 901 or email

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About the Author

Catherine Gillespie brings a wealth of skill to her clients. With particular expertise in teaching communication and workplace conflict resolution skills, Catherine has made a marked difference to the organisations she has worked with. She empowers teams and managers to adopt constructive styles that support harmony, productivity and progress in the workplace.