How do so many employees manage to find themselves caught up in unethical business practices, not of their own choosing and very often not for personal gain? Such as the employees caught up in the scandal which engulfed General Motors (GM) at the beginning of this year over its 10-year failure to rectify a faulty car component despite prevailing inside knowledge of its link to accidents and deaths?

The study of behaviour ethics focuses on how organisational dynamics can give rise to such collective unethical behaviour. Drawing on extensive field research, behaviour ethicists argue that unethical decisions at work have less to do with the character of individual employees and more to do with the context in which employees find themselves when making their decisions. They suggest that contexts can be stronger than reason, values and good intentions and point to some key organisational dynamics that rarely get acknowledged:

Frames: Employees are embedded in contexts that shape the way or “the frame” by which they see things i.e. individuals can narrow the information they use or screen out unwanted information. The role of frames was exposed by the inquiry into the Challenger space shuttle disaster where concerned engineers who had wanted to abort the launch were invited to change their frame of reference. The infamous last-minute scene between the engineers where it was explained how:

“Mr Mason said we have to make a management decision. He turned to Bob Lund and asked him to take off his engineering hat and put on his management hat.” The new frame of reference, the management frame, allowed the launch to proceed and seven astronauts lost their lives.

The way we construe a decision then can have a profound result on the decision made. Frames such as” if it’s legal it’s okay” or “I have nothing to personally gain from this” can also lead to unethical choices and behaviour as they screen out ethical considerations.

Ethical blindspots: Contexts can be so strong that individuals might engage in unethical behaviour despite their good intentions. An example here might be where people frame their actions in terms of “it’s a business decision only” and avoid canvassing any downside such as the negative impacts their decisions will have on others – shonky financial advisers might have justified their decisions thus. We might even engage in unethical behaviour without realising that what we are doing is wrong because of ethical blindness. The recent inquiry into GM over the non-disclosure of its faulty ignition switch found that the GM culture meant that people tried very hard to avoid bringing bad news to higher-ups and that it had been that way for decades. It was explained that practically no one was ever held accountable for a decision, partly because most decisions ended up in committees.

Automatic pilot: Perhaps the biggest contextual pressure on employees comes from organisational time pressures that encourage employees to be reactive rather than review decisions on the merits of each case. Time and peer pressures to “go along to get along” are the systemic source of much unethical behaviour in modern workplaces. Succumbing to these contextual pressure sees employees bypass their personal values and formal codes and instead do what’s necessary to get the results required.

How can you avoid unethical cultures emerging? A regular ethical review of an organisation will be able to reveal any contextual pressures and protect employees and organisations from becoming blindsided to inappropriate behaviour. Business ethics training too must be context-bound and speak to the authentic issues and challenges facing each organisation and its industry.

If organisations wish to promote their code of conduct’s ethical principles then they must ensure their employees are skilled to recognise and withstand the contextual pressures that leave them vulnerable to participation in collective unethical business behaviour.

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