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“Everyone does it!”: how not to be a star rider in the race to the bottom

Lance Armstrong has admitted using performance-enhancing drugs to win seven Tour de France titles. In a two and a half hour interview with Oprah Winfrey, broadcast over two nights in January 2013, the disgraced cyclist tried to explain to TV audiences how he came to be involved in doping. He made it clear that he only wanted to talk about his own cheating behaviour – and not necessarily to incriminate anyone else. However, he also spoke of a “culture” that facilitated and normalised cheating to such an extent that it scarcely felt like cheating at all. Asked by Ms Winfrey whether he had to take banned substances to keep on winning, he said “ yes … but that's like saying we have to have air in our tyres, or we have to have water in our bottle. That was … in my view, part of the job ”.

Whether we are talking about drug-taking cyclists, phone-hacking journalists, expense-fiddling MPs, profit-inflating accountants or LIBOR-manipulating bankers, discussion inevitably turns to the “culture” that causes or encourages individuals in an organisation to think it is OK to take short cuts, cheat and harm others. How does cheating become “just part of the job”? It is an important question because it is only by understanding the conditions that cause people to behave badly at work, that we will ever find good organisational solutions.

Pace-setter or passenger?

This is not to ignore the question of individual responsibility. Even if we don't always do right, most of us know the difference between right and wrong. Organisations should be able to rely on the morality and good judgment of employees at some level. As Andrea Orcel, chief executive of UBS's investment bank, recently told a committee of MPs, “people need to own the decisions they take”.

On the other hand, people are not islands. When things do go wrong, the “rogue operator” defence doesn't usually play out for long. Once the dust settles, there are inevitably hard questions to be asked about management and regulatory oversight. How did this behaviour get missed? Why didn't our compliance and risk management processes pick this up? Work then begins – one hopes – on tightening up governance, clarifying responsibilities, improving controls and strengthening regulation.  

Done well, this has the potential to have a positive impact on “corporate culture” as well as the immediate needs of risk management. Rule-breakers are more likely to be found out. Bad practices are nipped in the bud. The whole organisation, and everyone in it, receives a timely reminder about standards and expectations.

But this kind of “top down” response will only get you so far. A lasting transformation in corporate culture requires a bit more introspection, examination and self-awareness, from management in particular. People do not generally cheat just because they can, or because no one is looking. What other factors are at play?

Only human

When we have messed up it is fairly typical to reach out for rationalisations that help us to live with ourselves.

“I just do as I'm told”

“What I do doesn't make any difference”

“It's peanuts!”

“Management don't care”

“Everybody does it!”

These might sound feeble. If not, they probably should. But they are best not ignored because there is often a clue here as to what went wrong – and what might put it right.

The first speaks of a lack of a sense of responsibility for the person's own actions. People are not properly “owning” the decisions they are taking. Perhaps employees don't feel valued for themselves. Perhaps there are too many rules. Perhaps they are afraid of doing the wrong thing. Perhaps there is an aggressive or overly authoritarian atmosphere. Whatever the reason, there is a management issue to address here.

The second, third and fourth are an indication that things are going downhill. Resentment is brewing. Perhaps employees feel ignored, not properly consulted about the things that concern them. Perhaps a blind eye is being turned to “minor” transgressions, for the sake of profits, or maybe a quiet life. Perhaps it just takes a long time for management to get around to things.

The last should have alarm bells ringing everywhere. The organisation has been on a slippery slope for a while. The norms that apply everywhere else no longer govern here. Rationalisations are running rampant. Bad behaviour is referred to in euphemisms, rather than recognised for what it is. It's time for big changes – root and branch.

It's a team thing

Human beings are social animals. We tend to work in groups, and much of the way we think and act is propelled by this need to get along. Decades of research in psychology have given us a much deeper and more detailed understanding of what causes us to act in an “ethical” way – or otherwise. Most startling is the extent to which our ethical positions can be influenced by environmental factors and others around us – and how just tiny adjustments can produce dramatically different outcomes. (The key studies, findings and organisational implications are compellingly summarised and presented in Kaptein, 2012. Details at the end of this article).

When it comes to dealing with unethical behaviour at work, the difference between getting it right and getting it wrong can be a very close run thing. Goals are essential – but too many goals can confuse and cause people to lose focus. Financial rewards can help to motivate staff to perform – but on the other hand can be counterproductive in the long run if they cause people to forget all else. Rules help to define expectations – but too many rules can annoy, humiliate and inspire rebellion. Hierarchies may be necessary to allocate and manage work efficiently – but can also foster rancour, resentment and double standards.

This is why psychological insights are so important. No two workplaces are the same, of course. But, thanks to developments in psychological understanding – not to mention the lessons from corporate disasters such as Enron, WorldCom, and more recent banking scandals – we now have a pretty good idea of the factors that tend to lead employees to behave ethically, and the working conditions that are likely to have the opposite effect. We know that people are more likely to behave ethically when they are shown respect, are consulted, feel valued for who they are, are given an ordered and pleasant environment in which to work, are encouraged to take responsibility, work to a challenging but realistic set of goals, are rewarded fairly and appropriately, are not subjected to contradictory messages about what is expected, see unethical behaviour dealt with swiftly and appropriately, have positive and ethical role-models, feel an affinity with stakeholders and receive timely reminders of the impacts of what they do.

From “win at all costs” to “win-win”

This may seem utopian to some. The fact that most businesses operate in a fiercely competitive environment certainly adds to the pressures and challenges. But the basic point is a simple one. There are some environments in which unethical behaviour will thrive. And there are some where it won't. However, with leadership, commitment, courage, compassion, humility and self-awareness, it is possible to make the transition from one to the other.

This is important to corporate social responsibility and business and human rights because – with all our talk of codes of conduct and corporate policies, of impact assessments, reporting standards and key performance indicators, of corporate practices and accountability – we sometimes lose sight of the fact that organisations are staffed and managed by people . When things go wrong there is invariably a human story as well as a corporate one, which may have, at its heart, something as mundane as stress, frustration, over-confidence, laziness, time pressure, jealousy, resentment, temptation or just lack of sleep.

We can have all the codes of conduct, all the policies and rules in the world, but individual people still need to be motivated to do the right thing. This means treating employees with respect and making sure they feel valued. It means paying attention to the physical and emotional environment in which people work. It means tailoring human rights and ethics training to the specific context that people are working in, and giving people the chance to reflect upon and discuss what they would do in practical situations. It means that the correct reminders and prompts are given at the point of decision-making. It means that there is consistency between the firm's ethical aspirations and the way people are managed and rewarded. It means people understand and can relate personally to the interests of stakeholders. Above all it means that people understand and care about what makes other people tick.

READ THIS: Muel Kaptein, Why Good People Sometimes Do Bad Things: 52 Reflections on Ethics at Work , 25 July 2012. Copy available on-line at




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written by Jennifer Zerk


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