Why Your Organization Needs an Ethical Champion

Topic(s): ethics, leadership, teams
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2019)
Article: Ethical Champions, Emotions, Framing, and Team Ethical Decision Making
Authors: A. Chen, L.K. Treviño, S.E. Humphrey
Reviewed by: Jacqueline Marhefka

Important ethical decisions in organizations are more and more frequently the responsibility of teams rather than just one individual. Outcomes ranging from organizational reputation to customer wellbeing are often on the line. However, business logic that emphasizes profits and efficiency may leave ethical decisions as a lower or even conflicting priority. Particularly in teams, where individuals tend to go along with the majority, it may be challenging for one person to act as an ethical champion and change the team’s perspective from primarily considering business arguments to considering ethical arguments. Researchers (Chen, Treviño, & Humphrey, 2019) conducted two experiments to investigate if and how an ethical champion can change the ethics of team decisions.


Anger and sympathy are common emotional responses to ethical injustice. The researchers anticipated that these two emotions might encourage an ethical champion to speak their perspective and motivate team members to listen. This can shift the team from the dominant “business frame” of decision making, to instead consider the “ethical frame.” The researchers tested whether the use of these emotions to emphasize an ethical frame heightened team ethical awareness, which is the team’s shared acknowledgment of the relevant ethical issues. They found that ethical champions did increase team ethical awareness, which then heightened the ethicality of team decisions. There was no difference between ethical champions who expressed anger and those who expressed sympathy when communicating their ethical perspective. Both were able to positively influence team ethical awareness. However, those who expressed anger were disliked more than other team members and ethical champions who expressed sympathy.


Though ethical champions can describe the ethical issue at hand using an ethical frame of decision making (using language that makes ethics salient), they can also describe the ethical issue using a business frame (emphasizing the business benefits of an ethical decision). In a second experiment, the researchers tested how each of these frames relates to ethical decision making. Ethical champions who used an ethical frame led to increased team ethical awareness. This team ethical awareness reduced team moral disengagement, which describes a strategy a team may consciously or unconsciously use to distance itself from a moral dilemma. An example of this would be focusing on preventing business loss to the team rather than potential harm to others. Finally, reduced team moral disengagement increased the ethicality of team decisions.

On the other hand, a business frame utilized by an ethical champion led to the team perceiving more business utility of the ethical idea, which then also increased the ethicality of team decisions. A business frame was additionally related to decreased team moral disengagement as there were no longer conflicting priorities, leading to increased ethicality of team decisions. This suggests that both an ethical frame and a business frame can lead to increased team ethical decision making. However, the two frames do not have the same influence on future ethical issues. Only an ethical frame positively impacted future ethical decisions, whereas a business frame did not.


The results of this research suggest several approaches organizations can take to enhance ethical team decision making. Formally appointing an individual to take on the role of the ethical champion would ensure these duties are met if an ethical champion does not naturally arise. The research demonstrated that ethical champions do naturally emerge, so organizations should be sure to support and facilitate individuals in this position. To avoid dislike from team members, ethical champions would be well advised to not express anger when advocating for an ethical issue, but should rather express sympathy. Though using a business frame to promote an ethical decision may align more with the traditional business logic the team dominantly uses, only an ethical frame will contribute to enhancing subsequent ethical team decision making, so an ethical frame should be encouraged.



Chen, A., Treviño, L. K., & Humphrey, S. E. (2019). Ethical champions, emotions, framing, and team ethical decision making. Journal of Applied Psychology