When someone makes an unethical decision in the workplace, we often ask “why?” Answering this question is important because it helps us make sense of the behavior in order to prevent it from happening again in the future.
STUDYING UNETHICAL BEHAVIOR
The authors of this study (Schurr, Ritov, Kareev, & Avrahami, 2012) tried to further our understanding of why unethical behavior occurs. They proposed that people make unethical decisions because of how those decisions are framed. In other words, an individual’s perspective of a decision can be either narrow or broad—narrow when a decision is considered in isolation, broad when a decision is framed with full consideration of the consequences.
To test this idea, the authors had students face an ethical dilemma by giving them an
opportunity to be rewarded for cheating at a trivia game. This was measured by asking the students to participate in a practice round, then allowing them to self-score their answers in a monetarily incentivized “real” round. The researchers found that those in the “narrow” condition (students asked to move straight from the practice round to real round) were more likely to cheat than those in the broad condition (students asked to plan which questions they would see in advance). In a follow-up experiment where no monetary incentive was involved, the level of cheating dropped off significantly.
These results demonstrate that when there is incentive to do so, and a person is applying tunnel-vision to their decision making, the chances for unethical decisions increase. The authors warn that this study shows that the guardrails for “acceptable” behavior can move depending on a person’s perspective. But when people consider their decisions or set of decisions more broadly (i.e., the greater consequences of the decision and how it affects a larger context), those guardrails stand out more saliently and are harder to “reset.” Thus, by helping people think more broadly about how their decisions connect to the larger world, organizations, leaders, and trainers can inspire more ethical behavior at work.