27
Mar
11

Five Key Ethical Breakdowns

Businesspeople are facing an ethical crisis in their profession. Our public esteem is at an all-time low with no signs of rising. It will take all of us working together to fill in the hole we have made. Ethics have never been more critical – or more precarious. 

One of the issues we all face is our ability to assess ethics – our own and others – under changing conditions. In the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review, Max Mazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel show how any of us can go astray. In their article “Ethical Breakdowns,” they outline five critical factors that can trip anyone up:

  • Ill-Conceived Goals. Inadvertently setting goals that promote a negative behavior. The pressures to maximize billable hours or revenue per customer are both examples of goals that can promote negative behavior.
  • Motivated Blindness. We can overlook the ethical behavior of others when it’s in our interest to remain ignorant. Baseball officials ignoring the spread of steroid use in their game is a good example of that phenomenon.
  • Indirect Blindness. We hold others less accountable for unethical behavior when it’s carried out by a third party. A drug company licensed one of its marginally profitable specialty drugs to a third party, then raised the manufacturing price, which in turn led the licensee to raise the consumer price. The company used the licensee to impose a 1,000% price increase, deflecting attention from itself.
  • The Slippery Slope. We are less able to see others’ ethical failings when they happen over time. Auditors may fall prey to this if a company’s questionable practices accumulated over time, rather than all at once.
  • Overvaluing Outcomes. We give a pass to unethical behavior if the outcome is good. A researcher with fraudulent clinical trial entries is more likely to be given a “pass” if the drug works than if it doesn’t.

We all face examples of these conditions in our everyday business roles. The article does a great job of pointing out how these biases can cause even the most ethical person to slip into an unethical position. It’s often not the clear-cut decision between good and evil that trips us up. Rarely is it that simple, clear, or visible. 

Almost all of us aspire to high ethics and the best of behavior. If that applies to you, I encourage you to read the article. You will be surprised how our internal biases and can throw us off that high road!

 

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1 Response to “Five Key Ethical Breakdowns”


  1. 1 Dave Buchanan
    April 5, 2011 at 10:28 pm

    Too often we’re tempted skirt the issues of ethics in business in order to get through our daily grind. Thanks for giving us some excellent food for thought as we attempt to travel that high road, Buckley!


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