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Why Ethical Employees Sometimes Make Unethical Decisions

Why Ethical Employees Sometimes Make Unethical Decisions

We all want to experience a workplace culture where employees are encouraged to conduct themselves ethically. That’s why our organization makes ethics and compliance a top priority – by taking steps such as creating a code of conduct, providing ethics training and offering access to an anonymous hotline for reporting misconduct, we hope to create an enriching and rewarding environment for everyone.

However, no organization is immune from inappropriate behavior – hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear about incidents such as data breaches, fraud, charges of sexual harassment (especially in today’s “Me Too” climate) or some other form of workplace misconduct. While we often associate these events with “bad actors,” there are many occasions where they’re the result of lapses in judgment by good people who end up making unethical decisions.

Exploring the Factors That Lead to Good People Making Poor Ethical Choices

There are many reasons good employees make bad choices at work – and in some cases, an organization unwittingly contributes to a flawed decision-making process. For example:


  • Pressure to achieve unrealistic objectives: If employees feel that a goal is beyond their reach, they may resort to making unethical choices to avoid the negative consequences. For instance, a salesperson who is having difficulty meeting a quota may resort to offering bribes or unauthorized “perks” to clients to obtain the business.
  • Fear of speaking up: Some workers may witness blatant acts of misconduct but make the unethical decision not to report them. They may believe their claims will fall on deaf ears, which makes speaking up a futile gesture. They may also fear acts of retaliation from coworkers or even supervisors. Thus, they opt to “go along to get along,” which allows the inappropriate behavior to continue or even escalate.
  • Sense of unfairness: Employees may perceive they are being treated unfairly, causing them to resort to “cheating.” For example, workers in a department where a reduction in staff and resources results in them having to do “more with less” may resort to taking shortcuts or other inappropriate measures as a form of retribution against the employer. 
  • Personal need: Sometimes, a situation that arises in someone’s personal life causes an individual to make an unethical choice at work. Employees who are experiencing financial problems may take advantage of their access to the company’s accounting records or pad their expense account to acquire funds to pay off a debt. Often, this starts as a small theft, but as they realize they’re able to get away with it, the amounts increase over time. They tend to rationalize their actions by telling themselves they will find a way to pay the money back eventually.
  • Bad examples by supervisors: Employees typically observe their managers closely and take their cues from them regarding what is acceptable and inappropriate behavior. Even a seemingly insignificant act may send the wrong signal to workers. For example, if a manager approves a transaction that benefits an employee or customer but goes against company policy, workers may believe it’s okay to bend the rules in the future.

How You Can Avoid Making Unethical Decisions

As an ethics-focused organization, we do our best to create a positive work culture for every employee, which includes offering access to tools and resources to guide you in your decision-making process.

If you’re facing an ethical dilemma at work, we encourage you to consult our code of conduct. The code provides a framework to enable you to make the right decision for you – and the organization. The code encompasses many of the situations you’re likely to face while on the job.

We also recommend running the scenario by a respected colleague that you view as a role model. Sometimes, discussing the situation with someone you trust can help you see it in a different light, and you can use the insight to make a more informed decision. You can also discuss the circumstances with a supervisor if you feel comfortable doing so.

Another option is to contact our reporting hotline, especially if you’ve witnessed or have been the target of misconduct. You can make your report anonymously, confidentially and without fear of retribution. Using the hotline also prevents the need to make a tough decision regarding an ethics matter on your own.

Finally, it’s never a bad idea to follow your instincts. Simply put, if you don’t feel right about an action you’re about to take, it’s probably not a good decision from an ethical standpoint, either.

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