Is the Road to Risk Paved with Good Intentions?

This is the seventh post in a series on behavioral ethics.  Prior posts can be accessed here.

Recent posts in this series have discussed various circumstances in which an individual’s ethical standards  – what could be called “inner controls” – might not provide the safeguards against wrongdoing that one would tend to expect.  As we saw, the risk of an ethical shortfall in some of these circumstances may be intuitive, but being able to prove that risk with data – as behavioral ethics research can do – should help companies understand the need for extra compliance and ethics measures to bridge these gaps. 

And, not all risks of an “inner controls” shortfalls identified by behavioral ethics are intuitive.  For instance, we previously saw how disclosing a conflict can actually increase the likelihood of conflict-driven behavior.   And in today’s post, we take note of several studies from this field that show that ethical risks can in fact spring from doing good, based on the phenomenon of “moral compensation.”  

As described in a paper by Ann Tenbrunsel, Jennifer Jordan, Francesca Gino and Marijke Leliveld, this compensation works both ways.  Being cognizant of one’s ethical failings increases the likelihood of subsequently doing good – and that part is no surprise.  But the converse is true, too, and that part seems non-obvious (or at least it did  to me).

So, for instance:

– a prior act of gender equality can serve to “license” a subsequent discriminatory act,

– reminding people of their humanitarian traits actually reduces their charitable donations, and

– purchasing “green” products also licenses selfish and ethically questionable behavior.

While unfortunate, these are certainly risks about which C&E professionals should know. 

Perhaps most significantly, this research indicates a need for particular attention to C&E by organizations devoted to the public good such as charities,  government agencies, universities – many of which seem to have weak-to-non-existent C&E programs.  Indeed, because some of these organizations could be at risk of losing funding and other important forms of support in the event of a C&E transgression, this need may be acute in some instances.  (Note:  the Blog will soon run a post on COI policies for non-profits.)

Additionally, for-profit entities whose work can be seen as serving the public – e.g., news organizations, certain health care related businesses – should attempt to ensure (such as through C&E training) that their employees understand that their public missions do not come with a license to cut corners.  

Beyond these sector- or function-specific implications, the “moral compensation” phenomenon may provide useful (albeit somewhat unsettling) insight into optimum strategies for promoting ethical conduct in organizations of all kinds.  And those strategies will be explored in our next post in this series.


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