The Harvard Business Review has published an article describing what it learned from a survey of experts asked to describe the conditions they have observed in organizations later revealed to have serious ethics problems—the symptoms of an unethical organization ethics culture. Here are the five top signs, with the corresponding rationalizations from the Ethics Alarms list where appropriate, as well as related unethical patterns of thinking and relevant organizational ethics principles that are repeated constantly in training sessions by people like me, yet routinely ignored. The news media, meanwhile, often covers the incidents as if journalist have never heard of those principles.
I. Urgency and fear: Following corruption scandals, leaders tend to describe events in terms of pressure, necessity, and what the company needed to do to ”survive.” This perception of existential competitive threats can be used to justify the creation and maintenance of toxic incentives, and it will undermine any efforts to raise concerns.
Rationalization 28. The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times.”
An argument for those who embrace “the ends justify the means”—but only temporarily, mind you!—the Revolutionary’s excuse has as long and frightening a pedigree as any of the rationalizations here. Of course, there is no such thing as “ordinary times.” This rationalization suggests that standards of right and wrong can and should be suspended under “special” circumstances, always defined, naturally, by those who defy laws, rules, and societal values. Their circular logic results in their adversaries feeling justified in being equally unethical, since times in which the other side engages in dishonesty, cheating, cruelty, and more is, by definition, extraordinary.
The inevitable result is a downward spiral of conduct, until unethical behavior is the norm. Ironically, the rationalization that “these are not ordinary times” no longer is necessary at that point. Unethical conduct has become ordinary, the new normal. This is, it is fair to say, the current state of American politics.
Rationalization 31. The Troublesome Luxury: “Ethics is a luxury we can’t afford right now”
Ethics is never “a luxury.” It is slyly effective to describe it as such, however, and those who do so usually believe it—which means you should sleep with one eye open when they are around, watch your wallet, and never turn your back. Saying ethics is a luxury simply means that the speaker believes that one should be good and fair when it is easy and benefits him or her, but when problems loom and crises have to be faced, ethics are optional. This attitude is another calling card of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “Bad Man,” the law abiding citizen who will cut your throat for his own benefit if he finds a legal loophole. In a true crisis, ethical values are often the only thing standing between us and catastrophic misconduct in the throes of desperation and panic; they aren’t luxuries, they are life-lines. When you hear yourself saying, “I’ll do anything to fix this! Anything!” it is a warning, and the ethics alarm needs to start ringing hard. Grab those ethical values, and hold on to them. They are the last thing you can afford to be without at such times.
II. Isolation: Groups and teams that are far from headquarters—either in geography, access to information, or both—are vulnerable. When a team that is isolated (by accident or design) comes under the direction of an authoritarian, competitive leader, an enterprise has created the baseline conditions for corruption. People are far more influenced by their immediate surroundings than by a code of conduct set at the top.
This is group-think, ignoring the tenets of Professor Zimbardo’s rules that he recommends to avoid the phenomenon:
“Avoid situations where you lose contact with your social support and informational networks, for the most powerful forces of social influence thrive then. You do not want all your reinforces to come from these new sources….Never allow yourself to be cut off emotionally from your familiar and trusted reference groups of family, friends, neighbors, co-workers…