Employees Who Believe They Are Ethical People May Not Be

Bad behavior seems rampant in business, and scholars are divided as to why people act ethically or unethically. Many scholars have argued that ethical behavior is the result of simple judgments between right and wrong. Others suggest that the driving force behind ethical behavior is the person’s moral identity, or whether the individual thinks of himself or herself as an ethical person.

New research from the University of Washington suggested that both of these forces are at play. In two separate studies, Scott Reynolds, PhD, an assistant professor in the Michael G. Foster School of Business, and Tara Ceranic, a doctoral student studying business, surveyed 500 college students and managers about their ethical behaviors.

In the first study, researchers asked students if they would have cheated in college to score better on a test. Students who explicitly considered themselves to be moral people and considered cheating to be morally wrong were the least likely to cheat. In contrast, students who considered themselves to be moral but saw cheating as an ethically justifiable behavior were the worst cheaters.

“Our research suggested that a moral identity motivates behavior, but that accurate, ethical judgments are needed to set that behavior in the right direction,” Reynolds said in a press release. “A person’s moral identity can interact with his or her judgments and actually push ethical behaviors to extreme levels.”

According to the researchers, a moral identity specifically centers on a person’s moral aspects and acts as a self-regulatory mechanism that sets parameters for individual behavior and motivates specific actions that are moral. Reynolds and Ceranic found that motivational force needs direction, and that without proper guidance, a moral identity can conceivably push people toward socially undesirable behaviors.

Sometimes these extreme behaviors may not be in the best interests of the organization. There are measures that companies can take to improve moral behavior.

Reynolds said companies can focus on improving individual moral judgments. Moral development has been shown to improve with formal ethics training programs. Company leaders should provide both model moral judgment and delegate authority appropriately. Organizations also can more effectively communicate social consensus from higher sources, such as state and federal law, and more firmly establish their own social consensus. Doing so would presumably reduce the need for individual moral judgment and remove some of the variance in individual behavior. Mechanisms for conveying social consensus would include codes of conduct and both formal (newsletters, e-mails) and informal (speeches, conversations) information channels.

Companies can reward and encourage behaviors associated with the traits of a moral identity (fair, hardworking, compassionate), thereby encouraging development of moral identities within employees. Both formal and informal systems would have to be considered, and such efforts would have implications for the identity of the entire organization.

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