Are your ethics taking a wrong turn?

Even decent individuals can do bad things and then convince themselves it isn’t wrong

We all use rationalisations to eliminate the discomfort we feel when our actions don't match our values
We all use rationalisations to eliminate the discomfort we feel when our actions don't match our values

Even decent individuals can do bad things, and then convince themselves it wasn’t wrong.

We know that a lot of wrongdoing, particularly at work, is often done by otherwise decent and admirable people.

Throughout the world, a number of people prominent in business and politics have been found to have committed fraud: they used the resources, influence or money of the organisation for personal gain.


Related: Blowing the whistle on Olympus


When we do something that contradicts what we consider is the right thing to do, and goes against our principles and our own view of ourselves, we should feel guilt and anxiety.

But we find that many corrupt people do not see themselves as corrupt. This happens because we all use rationalisations to eliminate the discomfort we feel when our actions don’t match our values.

When we rationalise, we develop justifications for planning to do or having done something that normally we consider wrong.

We can all do things that go against our own values and at the same time continue to think of ourselves as ethical, upright persons.

But rationalising unethical actions not only takes away the stress and guilt of doing something wrong; it may also numb our awareness that these actions are wrong, and see us spiral into further wrongdoing.

We may rationalise wrongdoing against an organisation – such as stealing or misuse of its resources – by using the idea of a ledger.

The reasoning could go: “I worked longer hours without extra pay – I know what the business should have paid me, so I take what I am owed – this is not stealing, it is fair.” In order to eliminate our guilt, we rationalise that the organisation owes us something. But that sort of thinking is wrong!

Companies, too, use such rationalisations. For example: we pay millions in tax in this country and employ thousands of people, so complying with environmental regulation is in nobody’s interest.

And sometimes rationalisations of wrongdoing enter the language and thinking of an organisation, so they are accepted as “business as usual”. What people used to think was wrong will become right.

Understanding that people will rationalise wrong behaviour in order to meet organisational expections should compel organisations to have explicit ethical expectations of all their people. But it is also important to understand that wrongful behaviour against the organisation may also be rationalised by people we think are honest, loyal and trustworthy.


Dr Eva Tsahuridu is CPA Australia’s policy adviser, professional standards and governance.




Read next: After Olympus: A conversation with Michael Woodford

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