When and Why We Overlook Unethical Behavior

The folks at the Harvard Business Review point out the natural ways that employees punish unethical behavior-often through social means like walking away from an unethical person or leaving the room when someone enters. Basically this means that when we know someone is a cheater, it is so distasteful that we don’t even want to be around them. But there is an exception, and it is revealing.

When we are willing to tolerate or overlook really bad behavior there is always a reason. Often it is because we are benefitting in some way. It may be financial, social, career advancement, etc.  But the reason is revealing.  If there is real evil in your circumstances and you are unwilling to take a stand against it, you can learn something important about character. The reason you won’t take a stand may reveal what you value most.

Here is something from the article:

“Unethical high-performing employees, however, appear to receive a free pass for their unethical behaviors. These people may be unethical, but they get the job done, and enhance the organization’s short-term profitability along the way.

“This is the case even in organizations that on the whole are considered highly ethical. In our third study, we took into account the organization’s ethical environment and still found the same pattern of results. Irrespective of the extent to which the organization prioritizes ethics, unethical high-performing employees still had better working relationships with their peers and were less socially rejected than their unethical low-performing counterparts. There’s something about being a high performer that appears to mask concerns related to immorality.”

Source: We Don’t Shun Unethical Coworkers If They’re High Performers

2 thoughts on “When and Why We Overlook Unethical Behavior

  1. I work for a very ethical Fortune 500 company. They promote diversity and support the community. Headquartered in a small mid-west town, they work very hard at not only looking good, but doing the right thing in most cases. However, in the annual engagement survey I rated the company low on ethics and so did several others on my team. I know this because our boss reviewed the team average against the company average which was higher.

    I volunteered to explain my rating because I felt strongly about what I had seen over the years. It seems that “Fat Cat” had something against firing people who either did not perform well or those who were playing an unfair game. In both cases, from what I could gather, such employees were given the benefit of the doubt. While this might be considered “kind, it was demoralizing and provided an atmosphere where “no loads” (those who didn’t work as hard as the rest of their teammates) could simply “suck up” to the evil player and win! To further exacerbate the problem, those with data and good subject matter expertise would get nailed for knowing the reality.

    I want to provide a specific case but I think I’ll save that little story for my blog today. I generally post about culture and philosophy, but as I am a purveyor of lean thinking (the Toyota Production System with an American twist) I do get into leadership topics.

    Thank you for inspiring me! Stay tuned to find out what happened at “Fat Cat” that will keep me scoring them low for the remainder of my time there (until I retire in a couple of years.)

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