By Kelsey Medeiros, PhD
According to the Mayo Clinic, “infectious diseases are disorders caused by organisms – such as bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites. Many organisms live in and on our bodies. They’re normally harmless or even helpful, but under certain conditions, some organisms may cause disease.” Additionally, we know that diseases and viruses spread through multiple methods including direct and indirect contact, and that certain risk factors make you more or less likely to catch the latest infection.
Can the same logic be applied to unethical behavior and decision making? Similar to these totally gross organisms, we know that everyone has patterns of thinking and biases that, under certain conditions, may result in unethical behavior or decisions. What we don’t know as much about, however, is how these patterns of thinking spread from one individual to another.
In one of the few studies examining this topic, the authors found that individuals were more likely to cheat when they saw someone cheat from their own in-group (i.e., friends, workgroup) compared to when they saw someone from the out-group do so. This implies that when we see someone with whom we identify from our own social circle or work group do something unethical, we are more likely to also do something unethical! But how we can stop this infection from spreading?
We often hear tips about how to prevent the spread of disease and how to reduce our risk for contracting the latest virus. For example, the CDC lists three steps for reducing your chances of getting the flu:
Are there similar methods for reducing our risk for “catching” someone else’s unethical behavior or decision? How can organizations stop the spread of unethical behavior within their organization?
1. Get vaccinated
Training employees on topics beyond just legal issues and organizational rules is a good place to start. Including decision making training in your approach to organizational ethics will help employees recognize that they may be biased and, if not careful, may be likely to pick up other’s infections.
Just like the flu vaccine, however, training isn’t always 100% effective. So what else can be done?
2. Take other preventative actions
Creating a culture that fosters ethical decision making is another good place to start. Highly competitive cultures that focus on the bottom-line rather than the “right decision” can unintentionally promote unethical behavior. If you reward employees for doing whatever it takes to make the sale, and punish them for not doing so, you may be inadvertently encouraging them to break the law or rules to reach a goal. Taking time to identify your current culture and consider how to develop one that promotes ethical behavior can reduce your organization’s risk of unethical behavior, scandals, and financial repercussions. Just ask Wells Fargo!
3. Take the drugs when necessary
Realizing you have an infestation of unethical behavior in your workplace can be a tough pill to swallow. But recognizing it is the first step to fixing it. If you’ve identified unethical behavior among your coworkers, report it to the appropriate personnel. If you’re a leader in your organization and know of a growing or enduring ethical problem, take corrective actions such as making a culture change and implementing training.
At Ethics Advantage, we aim to help you with all three of these steps by identifying employee risk areas with the “My Ethics Profile.” This provides your employees with insights regarding their own risk areas and specific actions for limiting the infection in their decision making.
The Ethics Advantage Team