Values, structural compliance, behavioral ethics and…Dilbert

Back in the mid-1990’s, the incomparable business ethicist Dilbert asked his boss: “Can you explain how the company’s new ‘Statement of Core Values’ will change my behavior? I was planning to poison the town’s water supply. But wait! It’s against our core values!”

The debate over the value of values is nearly as old as the C&E field itself.  Harvard Business School professor Lynn Sharp Paine argued  twenty years ago that commitment to company values and values-supporting systems could  do more to promote responsible conduct than could what she described as a legal compliance model.  But sounding a note of caution then was Win Swenson, the principal draftsperson of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations, who wrote in a compliance treatise that while “[t]he legal vs. integrity-based dichotomy helps us think about different approaches companies can take….there is a danger in seeing the actual choice companies confront as a stark ‘either/or’ one,” and with each approach by itself having significant limitations.

The debate continues to this day, and was most recently joined by two other Harvard Business School professors  (Francesca Gino and Max Bazerman) and a graduate student (Ting Zhang) in a paper that posits a somewhat similar – but  certainly not identical – dichotomy between “(1) values-oriented approaches that broadly appeal to individuals’ preferences to be more moral, and (2) structure-oriented approaches that redesign specific incentives, tasks, and decisions to reduce temptations to cheat in the environment.”

With respect to values-oriented approaches, the authors describe a wealth of recent research findings from the field of behavioral ethics that, among many things, demonstrates the strong potential to impact behavior in desirable ways of “reminding individuals of their personal moral self-concept.”  However, the authors note that values-based approaches can have limitations and undesired consequences too: “[f]or instance, organizations that promote ethical mission statements while failing to adjust unrealistic goals that routinely place employees in ethical dilemmas.”

The authors also describe research showing that “structuring the incentives, task, or set of choices to reduce or even eliminate the temptation to act unethically,” can likewise affect behavior in various desirable ways.  But here, as well, the news is mixed – as behavioral ethics studies also suggest, among other things, that “using incentives to highlight the negative side to unethical behavior could lead to even more wrongdoing as doing so may prevent individuals from perceiving their decisions as ethically-relevant.”

Thus, and “[g]iven the strengths and weaknesses of values- and structure-oriented approaches on their own, [the authors argue] …incorporating both approaches can compensate for each approach’s unique set of limitations and dampen the risk of adverse effects.” Their paper describes strategies for doing this – including checking for incompatibilities in implementing either approach; aligning the timing of values-related reminders with that of potentially risky decisions; “evaluating decisions jointly rather than separately”; “encourag[ing] mental and social contemplation”; and “designing a structure-oriented intervention [that] includes implementing changes in the environment to induce self-awareness and highlight the link between behaviors and the moral self.”

I should emphasize that while some of the recommendations can be applied in the context of C&E programs that is not the case with all of them. However, this isn’t intended as a criticism of the paper, which does not purport to be addressed to C&E officers but, rather, mainly to other organizational scholars.  Moreover, because this is one of the few behavioral ethics papers published to date where the focus is on finding ways to prevent – as opposed merely  to identify the causes of – wrongdoing,  it should be welcomed by C&E practitioners.  (As discussed in an earlier blog post, for various reasons behavioral ethicists and C&E practitioners should work more closely together, and this paper is an important step in that direction.)

Another comment from a C&E practitioner’s perspective is that while the two approaches identified in the paper are indeed distinct as a conceptual matter, the perception “on the ground” may be somewhat more of a blend.  That is, regularly seeing one’s company take meaningful steps to promote ethicality and law abidance – through incentives, process controls, discipline for violations and other structure-oriented approaches – may itself serve as a potent reminder to employees of their own moral preferences, and possibly  a more effective one than traditional communications.  Indeed, from my more than twenty years of interviewing employees of client organizations about the perceived ethicality of their respective companies I have been impressed with how much values-oriented individuals appreciate strong compliance/structural approaches.  Like Dilbert (as well as Zhang and her colleagues), they seem to know the difference between preaching and practicing.


Some related readings:

Another best-of-both-worlds approach to values and compliance –specifically on how compliance can bring “body” to ethics and ethics can bring “soul” to compliance.   

– Scott Killingsworth’s paper, ‘C’ is for Crucible: Behavioral Ethics, Culture, and the Board’s Role in C-Suite Compliance.

– An index of posts of what behavioral ethics could mean for C&E programs.  

An exchange with Steve Priest on C&E “checking,”which includes a discussion of embedding C&E into everyday business operations – an emerging form of structural compliance  which could, I believe, play a powerful  role in reminding employees of their moral preferences on a timely basis.

One Comment
  1. Scott Killingsworth 3 years ago

    My favorite Dilbert E&C example has to do with the power of incentives. The pointy-haired boss hands Dilbert a sheet of paper and tells him that “Your compensation will be based on achieving these goals.” Dilbert: “Awesome. It’s like written permission to ignore everything else you asked me to do.”

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