If your staff like to nab the odd pen to take home, then you’d better read this.
According to new research, employees who partake in minor ‘crimes’ at work could progressively be guilty of more – and bigger – unethical behaviour, as they find these infractions easier and easier to justify.
The study, titled The Slippery Slope: How Small Ethical Transgressions Pave the Way for Larger Future Transgressions, looked into behavioural ethics to discover how those guilty of major corporate scandals started out with a series of small crimes at work.
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Although to most staff taking a pen from the office or grabbing a roll of toilet paper when they’ve run out at home is easier to justify than committing serious fraud, the researchers noted the minor transgressions made it easier to progress to more sinister behaviour.
“People rationalise their behavior to justify it,” said Lisa Ordóñez, of the University of Arizona and one of the researchers involved, in a press release. “They might think ‘No one got hurt’ or ‘Everyone does it.’ The next time they feel fine about doing something a little bit worse the next time and then commit more severe unethical actions.
“Because of this rationalisation process – what we call moral disengagement – people are more likely to slip into a pattern of behavior. We call this the slippery-slope effect.”
The researchers used three different tasks across four studies to measure unethical behavior at multiple points in time to uncover the process by which the slippery-slope effect occurs.
They found people are more likely to justify small ethical indiscretions than major ones and that when faced with abrupt and large dilemmas (rather than those that gradually increase), they are less likely to be unethical.
However, they are more likely to make unethical choices if they are faced with indiscretions gradually over time.
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The researchers said the slippery-slope effect can be reduced by inducing a “prevention focus” which encourages people to self-regulate, thus making them more vigilant, which deactivates the justification process. Business leaders can:
- Ensure that the firm has a strong ethical culture where misconduct is clearly defined.
- Set and maintain an ethical status quo.
- Use rhetoric to underscore ethical boundaries and continue to talk about them. Include ethics in their companies’ vision statements, speeches and presentations to employees.
- Make ethics part of the corporate identity.
- Be vigilant about small ethical lapses and address them quickly to prevent larger ones.
- Inculcate a prevention focus by setting clear standards and openly delineating potential ethical pitfalls that must be avoided.