Baker's Research Sheds Light on Causes of Unethical Behavior in the Workplace

Vicki BakerAlbion College economics and management professor Vicki Baker has spent her academic career studying the decisions individuals make in the workplace. In a paper recently published in Personnel Psychology, Baker and her colleagues from the London Business School, Cornell University, the University of Michigan, and Pennsylvania State University developed a measure to predict unethical behavior.

"We came across this construct called moral disengagement [when I was a graduate student at Penn State] and situated it in a business context," Baker said. "In this most recent publication I worked with these colleagues to develop a moral disengagement measure that is statistically and theoretically sound in an adult population. The previous research looked at children and adolescents.

"This construct has eight scales to measure the propensity of an individual to morally disengage. One of the scales is called euphemistic labeling," she explained. "If you would ask a student about illegally downloading music, they would say 'I'm sharing files' versus stealing. It's using different justifications to make bad behavior acceptable."

The other scales include moral justification (lying to protect friends or playing dirty to achieve noble ends), advantageous comparison (making an illegal act seem less harmful when compared to another), displacement of responsibility (not holding an individual responsible for an illegal act if ordered by an authority figure), diffusion of responsibility (people can't be held responsible if others are committing the same act), distortion of consequences (making it OK to tell small lies or receive extra change if no one is hurt), dehumanization (making it OK to hurt another individual who lacks feelings or behaves badly), and attribution of blame (finding fault with people or organizations who are mistreated).

Baker noted her amazement in how small changes to the scenarios to determine justification changed an individual's behavior. She related a story about how people react to returning extra change to a coffee shop with outlets around the world as opposed to the local mom-and-pop shop.

It has been determined that self-interest is an important factor in leading an individual to engage in unethical behavior, and Baker hopes this research will lead to additional training in the workplace about the roles situation, culture, and generation differences play in influencing human behavior.

"All you have to do is watch the nightly news when the Enrons and Arthur Andersens hit and realize the individuals doing the perp walks knew what they were doing was wrong but the self-interest at the end of the day trumped [moral and ethical behavior]," Baker said. "It is about trying to do the right thing for those individuals who don't have a voice to defend themselves. The right thing is not the easiest thing to do. We can stand back and say, 'I would have spoken up if that would have been me,' but you never know how you're going to react until you're in that situation. One person might be motivated by more money while another by a flexible work schedule. At the end of the day everybody displays some level of self-interest.

"I don't know [if people can overcome the temptations created by self-interest], but through proper training and education and through role modeling we may create the right culture and have a better chance of improving behaviors. It is the manager's role to understand each individual is coming [to the workplace] with a different moral compass and standards, and it's the manager's job to set expectations, clearly communicate boundaries, role-model appropriate behavior, and create a culture where morals are appreciated. I show my students the different tipping points and what triggers [unethical behavior] and if I can make them think twice about engaging in something that's unethical then I feel like I'm making a difference, and that's the role this research plays in informing the teaching."

Baker is applying the results from the research in the classroom as her classes look at human resources from an international perspective.

"I started an international management class for the first time, taking the culture from the U.S. and picking them apart," Baker said. "Child labor, for example, wouldn't fly here but it does in other countries. Business is global so we need to start looking at those issues."