Should we have double ethical standards?

Of course, almost no one would answer Yes to the question put as bluntly as this. But – by word or deed (or, more often, lack of word or deed) – that is where things frequently end up.

It is a seemingly timeless issue. Most recently, it has been part of the national conversation arising from disclosures of sexual misconduct by various powerful individuals that – at least partly due to a double standard – had been long allowed to go unchecked by others. But the question of double standards has also come up over the years in the conflict of interest realm.

Earlier this month, a story in the New York Times asked if various Trump appointees should be considered – as the President suggested – too rich to be affected by conflicting interests. (“’They’re representing the country,’ Mr. Trump said in June at a rally in Iowa. ‘They don’t want the money.’”) As discussed in this post (from the pre-Trump era), there are many reasons to reject this way of thinking:

“[T]he notion of being too rich to be corrupted is sadly an oft-told tale.   It comes up frequently in the gifts/entertainment and other COI areas when C&E officers are asked to approve a transaction (e.g., entertainment provided by a vendor) for a high-level employee that would be impermissible for others in the organization. The basic thought is that the individual in question already has so much money (or what money can buy) that more won’t affect her judgment.

“There is a logic to this, but it is based on the increasingly discredited homo economicus view of human nature.   This view would presumably treat the corruptibility of a person in a given situation as a fraction with the amount being offered as the numerator, the individual’s total wealth the denominator, and the larger the overall number the greater ethical risk. (I.e., a mathematically derivable ‘personal corruptibility index’ of sorts.)

“By contrast, when viewed through the lens of behavioral science (and  much human experience), the rich and powerful can be seen as more corruptible than others, as discussed in prior posts such as this one.   The most memorable expression of this may be the saying attributed to the late Leona Helmsley that ‘only the little people pay taxes.’   But the reflection of actual COI risk being concentrated near “the top” echoes through our news stories on a near daily basis.

“Additionally, there are many types of conflicts that cannot be measured in a purely monetary way, such as those involving  glory (as described here), friendship (discussed in the second case in this post) or family relationships (discussed here). Even if they are not inherently more susceptible to COIs, from a situational perspective, the high and mighty presumably are faced with more frequent pressures and temptations of this sort than are most other individuals (as briefly touched on in this earlier post).”

Finally, the notion of organizational justice should be included in this mix, meaning that having  double standards in one area can harm the ethicality of an organization overall. Any type of wrongdoing creates some peril in this regard, but COI double standards are of particular concern. As described in this post: “The special harm that COIs can cause to organizational justice arises from their frequently personal nature: because COIs often involve a personal benefit to an individual employee that is denied to others, the latter (i.e., rule abiding employees) can feel personally harmed (from a relative perspective) by the COI in a way that they would not feel, for example, with an antitrust offense or violation of export regulations.”

In sum, being rich and powerful does not, in my view, serve as a mitigant for conflicts of interest; if anything, it should be seen as a cause of COI risk. And I would be surprised if the same was not true with harassment risks too.


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