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How Your Environment Not Your Personality Determines If You’re Unethical

Bad behavior isn’t always due to a personality flaw. Adjusting flaws in the work environment can fix moral slips.

How Your Environment Not Your Personality Determines If You’re Unethical
[Photo: Flickr user Paul A. Hernandez]

Why do decent people do unethical things?

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In a column for Bloomberg, Francesca Gino writes that the biggest business scandals–the downfall of Enron, Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, News of the World phone hacking scandal, rogue trading at UBS–follow a distinct pattern: an individual commits small deviant acts that, over time, mushroom into scandal and subsequent collapse.

Unethical behavior typically begins not with bad apples carrying out elaborate schemes but minor violations–stealing office supplies, rounding up expense reports, calling in “sick”–that everyone is guilty of. Gino cites one study that found that three-quarters of respondents reported that they had observed coworkers commit “unethical” or “illegal” behavior in the past year.

Just how much does petty office thievery lead to a slippery slope of bad behavior?

Most of us will never be in the same sentence as Madoff or Skilling, but Gino’s research suggests that we’ll break more rules if we violate small ones first. “When given a series of problem-solving tasks, 50% of our subjects cheated to earn $.25 per problem in the first round, and 60% cheated to earn $2.50 per problem in the final round. However, the people in the abrupt change group who could not cheat during the first two rounds were much less willing to cheat big for $2.50 per problem during the final round (only about 30% did).”

In a related study with Max Bazerman, Gino discovered that, “people who played the role of auditors in a simulated auditing task were much less likely to report those who gradually inflated their numbers over time than those who made more abrupt changes all at once.”

Fortunately, there’s one solution to these slips, and it does not involve boring HR videos. In Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write about how small changes in context–“nudges”– significantly affect behavior. My favorite example involves urinals. Researchers reduced spillage in some Amsterdam airport bathrooms by sticking a small plastic fly on the bottom on the urinal. It helps to have a target.

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“Ethical nudges” could help reduce minor office infractions in the same way. Compared to a control group, Gino writes, customers were more honest in reporting their annual mileage if they signed the statement “I promise that the information I am providing is true” first. Another study found that diners in a university cafeteria were cleaner when researchers hung posters with images of human eyes (instead of flowers) at eye level.

We tend to think than unethical behavior is the result of a nasty personality trait. But these pieces of research force another interpretation. Unethical behavior might be a circumstantial problem. That’s good news. If you want to change behavior, start by changing the environment.

This article originally appeared in 250 Words and is reprinted with permission.