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Blog: Ethics Lens on ... Behaviour

Forget the idea that human beings are perfectly rational if you want to make your ethics programme effective.


In reality, we don’t always make consistent decisions, based on strict logic or narrow self-interest. Human behaviour is complex and emotions and intuition have a significant role to play in individual decision-making.

An understanding of behavioural ethics can help improve the efficacy of an ethics programme by taking into account the different ways we make decisions, and the biases that can blind us to unethical behaviour. Many unethical decisions are not deliberate acts by ‘bad’ people, rather, they occur where a well-intentioned person has become ethically blind as a result of any number of individual, organisational or societal pressures.

Here are some questions to ask of your organisation.

How does your ethics programme measure up?


  • What impact does the language in your Code of Ethics have? Does it empower employees to do the right thing or is it dictatorial or legalistic? Is it framed in the positive or in the negative? Have you considered the tone? Does it use creative terms to ‘sugar coat’ unethical acts?

  • Is the language used in the Code reflected in other departmental policies, or do they contradict each other? Ensuring consistency in the language and messaging is essential.

  • Communication and awareness raising tools such as promotional goods or campaigns can create positive saliency bias, putting ethics at the forefront of people’s minds, and nudging employees to consider the ethical implications of their decisions

  • Running face-to-face ethics training with groups comprised of varying seniority levels, departments and cultures, provides employees with exposure to differing perspectives, building their moral imagination and preventing moral disengagement. It increases the prominence of ethics for employees and opens up a pan organisation dialogue.

  • Broadening the scope of ethics training to include awareness of how we make decisions, the impact of organisational context and the signs of ethical blindness and moral disengagement (e.g. through use of rationalisations) can help employees to make better decisions.

  • Supporting decision-making at all levels, from senior leaders to all members of staff, will help to prevent unethical behaviour.

  • Useful tools for this include the Ladder of Inference and the Neutralisations Alarm Clock.

  • Ensure leaders are aware of the impact that their language has on employees. Are they creating a culture of fear and authoritarianism with their words?

  • Are employees treated with respect? When employees are treated as trustworthy, capable members of a team, they’re more likely to act accordingly. This is known as the Pygmalion effect and refers to the tendency people have to act the way that other people treat them.

  • Celebrate those that speak up. If they are treated badly, others will see this and be unlikely to speak out for fear of being ostracised by their colleagues.

  • Involve employees in their own goal setting and gather feedback on targets and incentive structures – are they realistic, or are they encouraging employees to cut corners due to the pressure?

  • Review industry practices if possible. Are there ethical challenges that need to be addressed? Acknowledge these and discuss with employees who are likely to be engaging with people in the wider industry.

  • Promote transparent decision making and individual accountability. It is easier for an employee to make an unethical decision when they are acting as an ‘agent’ with no accountability or visibility of their actions.

  • Include questions in staff surveys to help identify ethical blindness and moral disengagement, framing them in such a way that employees will understand (e.g. have they ever heard rationalisations used in the workplace, do they feel under significant time pressure etc)
Read more in IBE's Briefing: Using Behavioural Ethics to Improve Your Ethics Programme


Posted: 24/05/2018

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