Why is it that so many well respected corporate leaders and top executives cross
moral boundaries apparently without fear of disastrous consequences for their
actions, especially when the right thing to do seems readily apparent? This article
addresses the perennial issue, “Why do good people do bad things?” using a theoretical
framework, the Continuum of Compromise (CoC). The CoC demonstrates
the potential for radical deterioration of sociomoral inhibitions and a perceived
sense of permissibility for deviant conduct (captured by the metaphor “slippery
slope”). Specifically, this article strengthens the theoretical framework of the CoC
by integrating three attitude profiles (the virtuous, the ordinary unethical behavior,
and the egoist). Factors that contribute toward the gradual decline down the slippery
slope are presented and fall under two types of rationalization: (1) rotten apples
(a person succumbs to the temptations inherent in the work environment), and
(2) rotten barrel (the work environment provides many opportunities to learn and
develop patterns of deviant behavior). We discuss three examples that illustrate
how a company can be transformed from a virtuous, well-respected entity, with
a strong organizational culture, to a slippery-slope demise with dramatic and disastrous
consequences. A strong corporate culture is a powerful influence that can
signal what is or is not acceptable behavior. Recent research results have revealed
that it is the collective attitude or tone at the top that is the most critical factor
in shaping organizational culture. The core values of a strong corporate culture
guide its strategy and business decisions; therefore, it turns out that culture is the
leading risk factor in shaping or compromising ethical behavior of individuals in
companies. We present a correlation between culture and attitude profiles, as well
as the upside and downside of cultural risk environmental factors.

 

Slippery When Wet: The Real Risk in Business

Surendra Arjoon Department of Management Studies The University of the West Indies


Why is it that so many well respected corporate leaders and top executives cross moral boundaries apparently without fear of disastrous consequences for their actions, especially when the right thing to do seems readily apparent? This article addresses the perennial issue, "Why do good people do bad things?" using a theoretical framework, the Continuum of Compromise (CoC). The CoC demonstrates the potential for radical deterioration of sociomoral inhibitions and a perceived sense of permissibility for deviant conduct (captured by the metaphor "slippery slope"). Specifically, this article strengthens the theoretical framework of the CoC by integrating three attitude profiles (the virtuous, the ordinary unethical behavior, and the egoist). Factors that contribute toward the gradual decline down the slippery slope are presented and fall under two types of rationalization:

(1) rotten apples (a person succumbs to the temptations inherent in the work environment), and

(2) rotten barrel (the work environment provides many opportunities to learn and develop patterns of deviant behavior).

We discuss three examples that illustrate how a company can be transformed from a virtuous, well-respected entity, with a strong organizational culture, to a slippery-slope demise with dramatic and disastrous consequences. A strong corporate culture is a powerful influence that can signal what is or is not acceptable behavior. Recent research results have revealed that it is the collective attitude or tone at the top that is the most critical factor in shaping organizational culture. The core values of a strong corporate culture guide its strategy and business decisions; therefore, it turns out that culture is the leading risk factor in shaping or compromising ethical behavior of individuals in companies. We present a correlation between culture and attitude profiles, as well as the upside and downside of cultural risk environmental factors.


Why Good People Do Bad Things-- The Continuum of Compromise

Recent studies on both sides of the Atlantic reveal that many people are currently unhappy with the ethical state of leaders in government and business. In spite of the current ethical state, many of us are still alarmed by unethical actions at major corporations, which include tax evasion, acting on insider information, lying, elaborate schemes that artificially inflate profits, and falsifying financial statements. On the one hand, why is it that so many well-respected corporate leaders and top executives cross moral boundaries, apparently without fear of disastrous consequences for their actions, especially when the right thing to do seems readily apparent? On the other hand, many of the actions of the majority of people who do not make headline news also cross moral boundaries: taking office stationary for personal use, accepting a gift from a client although it is against company policy, cutting corners to meet deadlines, lying to others, taking advantage of a customer's or client's ignorance, or turning a blind eye to a colleague's wrongdoings.

In effect, this article addresses the issue of why good people do bad things. As commonsense experience tells us, it is the small infractions that can lead to the larger ones. An organization that overlooks the small infractions of its employees creates a culture of acceptance that may lead to its own demise. This phenomenon is captured by the metaphor of the slippery slope.

Many unethical acts occur without the conscience awareness of the person who engaged in the misconduct. Specifically, unethical behavior is most likely to follow the path of a slippery slope, defined as a gradual decline in which no one event makes one aware that he or she is acting unethically. The majority of unethical behaviors are unintentional and ordinary, thus affecting everyone and providing support for unethical behavior when people unconsciously lower the bar over time through small changes in their ethical behavior.1 The Continuum of Compromise2 (CoC) provides a plausible explanation of the slippery-slope phenomenon.

It explains how over a period of time mild job frustrations develop into a pathological, materialistic attitude and behavior that leads to devastating consequences. This phenomenon is also known by the metaphors "the thin edge of the wedge" and "the camel's nose" (once a camel has managed to place its nose within a tent, the rest of the camel inevitably follows). The CoC reflects a framework that demonstrates the potential for radical deterioration of sociomoral inhibitions and a perceived sense of permissibility for deviant conduct. In other words, if something relatively harmless is allowed or accepted, it may lead to a downward trend that ends with the unthinkable.

In this article, we illustrate how the CoC provides a framework for understanding how the transition from a virtuous person to an egoist can occur. When combined with the corresponding attitude profiles, the CoC can be used as an analytical tool and a strategic framework for timely and proactive intervention in dealing with unethical conduct at the personal level. Figure 1 shows the CoC, which indicates three attitudes that characterize behaviors: the virtuous, the OUB (ordinary unethical behavior)3 and the egoist along with three complementary stages (acts of omission, acts of administrative commission, and acts of criminal commission) that make up the continuum.

 

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