Unethical behavior appears to be pervasive in most organizations. For example, between 47% and 81% of workers around the world saw, in recent times, coworkers engaging in unethical behavior[1] [2]. These unethical behaviors are estimated to cost organizations around the globe more than $4.5 trillions per year[3].

Although we have our preferred ways of doing things, we tend to act within certain boundaries or ranges of ethical behavior. At work, the environment that surrounds us is the invisible hand that shapes how ethical or unethical we actually behave. Indeed, despite our unique characteristics, unethical behavior tends to rise under certain work environments[4]. For example, large scale studies show that if you work in a place with a weak ethical culture that pressures you to bend the rules, the instances of unethical behavior more than double[5]. People often behave unethically not because they have a faulty character, but because they have a faulty work environment that could be improved. Not always, but frequently.

These scientific findings do not legitimize nor justify unethical behavior. They simply tell us that there are some work environments and practices that have ethical costs. In this article, we will understand why some work environments and practices cause unethical behavior, and discuss tested ways to tackle the issue.

Work environments that cause unethical behavior

Intense performance pressure

Intense performance pressure is a source of unethical behavior

One of the most established findings in social sciences is that having difficult, yet attainable, goals enhances our performance compared to being told to do our best, having no goals, or setting easy ones[6]. This sounds helpful and harmless enough, but  some organizations have pushed goal-setting to a detrimental level.

For instance, many managers keep challenging people with ever more difficult performance goals once the previous ones have been achieved. The caveat is that increasing performance goals consecutively or having, by default, demanding goals to achieve can enhance both performance and unethical behavior[7] [8].

Being requested to systematically perform at your peak is demanding and consumes substantial personal resources – for example your energy and focus. You end up with the job done. But you also end up exhausted. When you find yourself fatigued or with limited resources, your capacity to identify an ethical issue, regulate your behavior, and engage in complex ethical reasoning is limited[9]. As a consequence, the possibility of engaging in unethical behavior goes up.

Intense performance pressures can also activate a preventive mindset in some people. That is, when goals are extremely difficult to achieve or expectations too high, some may engage in risky behaviors to prevent goal failure and the associated negative consequences[10] [11]. Among those risky behaviors are unethical and illegal behaviors.

Also, when we focus on high performance goals too much we can become shielded from other aspects of the situation, particularly ethical ones[12]. A shielding focus helps you allocate your cognitive and motivational resources to the goals you want to achieve. However, it can also blind you to the ethical implications of your behaviors.

Intense time pressure to achieve a goal can also increase unethical behavior[13]. Research indicates that in tempting situations, where we can easily lie or deceive others, our automatic and immediate response is to serve our own interests and engage in unethical behavior[14]. We can overcome this tendency by deliberating about the right thing to do, remembering our moral values, talking to others about ethical options, establishing an action plan, and implementing it[15] [16]. This process takes time and requires resources. When we lack the time to engage in this time consuming process, we are left with our more automatic tendency to behave unethically.

Intense and fast-paced cultures with constant demanding goals tend to boost performance but also have ethical costs. If you feel worn down by consecutive high performance goals and unable to cope with all the requests of your job, you may be (unwillingly) pressured by your workplace to behave unethically.

Strong socialization programs that increase your identification and loyalty with the organization

Strong socialization programs can increase unethical behavior as they can leave you over-identified with the company

To ensure that you are fully adjusted to the company, most organizations have strong socialization programs in place. If you are new to a job, it is common to have the guidance of a company’s trusted mentor, or to attend training sessions on the day-to-day operations of the company. If you have been with the organization for a while, team building exercises, after work parties, and peer support systems are common ways to consolidate your relationship with the company.

These practices are important because they help you understand what you are supposed to do in the company, increase your confidence in your own ability and competence to do the job, create the foundations for other people to accept and integrate you, and enhance your commitment, loyalty, and identification with the organization[17]. These programs also have several ethical-related benefits. For example, when you are committed to and identified with your company you tend to cooperate more with others, instead of intentionally undermining your colleagues to achieve personal gains[18].

The downside of some of these programs is that they can leave you over-identified with the company. You may end up seeing the successes of the company as your own, and take criticisms or praises to the company personally. In some cases your own identity as a person and the identity of the company become one. In our years of consulting, we have seen multiple instances of over-identification: a company logo tattooed in the leg of an employee, and a worker never requesting reimbursements for work-related expenses are some examples that come to mind.

When you identify strongly with an organization you may engage in unethical behaviors with the intent of “helping” the company[19]. For example, you may choose to disregard your personal ethical standards if you believe that cutting some corners benefits the company. You may also withhold negative information about how a project really goes if that can help the company to make an important sale. You may even cover up important ethical violations from your company, such as over-billing clients or privacy breaches, if you believe that disclosing that information could hurt the company.

These examples illustrate why over-identification frequently leads to unethical actions. When identification becomes too strong, you have easy access to a series of dysfunctional justifications to “help” the organization with unethical actions[20]. These justifications are particularly problematic because they attenuate the natural distress we feel when we compromise ethical values, leaving us even more prone to unethical behavior.

Research also shows that you are more likely to derail ethically when, on top of being overly identified with your company, you also believe that your “loyalty” will be reciprocated in kind or with favors[21]. For example, you may believe that if you cover up unethical behaviors from your company, they will help you out if you have a difficult personal issue or will put you upfront for a promotion.

Role conflict

Role conflict may cause unethical behavior in the workplace

We all have multiple roles in our personal lives and at work that are important to fulfill. For example, at work we want to do our share of work, support colleagues when they need help, and ensure that we are polite and responsive to the people with whom we speak. In our personal lives we may want to be good friends, or helpful community members.

In many instances we can fulfill these roles harmoniously. However, we sometimes find ourselves in situations where the demands of one of our roles hinder the fulfillment of another role. In such cases, we face a conflict between roles.

You might experience role conflict when you miss the birthday party of your partner because of an emergency at work; or when your job asks you to achieve incompatible goals, such as thoroughly answering customers’ queries while at the same time reducing time spent with customers. You might also face role conflict when your personal moral standards clash with a work request (for example, selling a toxic stock); or when the values of your job are at odds with the values of your profession – for example, while physicians should use the most accurate and safe methods available to diagnose and treat patients (professional role), hospitals may ask them to use outdated procedures or materials due to financial constraints (employee role).

These and other sources of role conflict are a significant source of strain for most of us[22]. When we experience anxiety, tension, or other forms of strain, our defense system kicks in and we look for ways to cope with the undesirable experience. Some coping strategies to deal with role conflict are more ethical than others[23] [24]. For example, when you experience role conflict you can choose one role over the other, or you can compromise and do a little bit of both roles. Both options are ethical if your choice or compromise is legitimate and is communicated to the people involved. However, you can also do neither role and simply avoid the issue, or you can do one role and say that you also did the other (by lying or misreporting, for example) – both questionable approaches from an ethical standpoint.

The unethical pathway to deal with role conflict has a further perverse twist due to the illusions it creates. Specifically, by doing one thing and reporting that you also have done another you are creating the illusion, in yourself and others, that you are extremely competent at work[25]. Although this protective approach might reduce strain in the short term, it tends to become an additional source of strain in the long run, as the consequences of the unethical behavior start to pile up.


Both stiff competition and no competition can lead to unethical behavior

Both stiff competition and no competition have the potential to increase unethical behavior. When there is no (or weak) competition, there may be the temptation to engage in abusive and unethical practices[26] [27]. For example, people and companies might deviously eliminate any potential form of competition, make large profits that are not balanced out by the market or by other professionals in the company, or even lie about their dominant status to avoid audits, regulations, and public judgments.

However, it is rare to be in a position without substantial competition and, in some cases, resources are so scarce that competition becomes stiff. Although competition motivates people to go the extra mile and work harder, and firms to innovate and improve quality; it also increases unethical and dishonest behavior. For example, competition tends to increase firms’ engagement in illegal activities[28] and tax evasion[29], as well as employees’ use of deception, unethical negotiation tactics, and performance over-reporting[30] [31].

Competition can increase unethical behavior for many reasons. First, the more competitive an environment is, the more effort will be required to gather the resources needed to achieve a goal. If people feel that the company does not provide them with legitimate resources and training to succeed in a competitive environment, they may start looking for any strategy (ethical or unethical) that might balance things out[32]. Those who are starting out may feel entitled to cheat because they feel the environment is not supporting their development; and experts may feel tempted to cheat to have a small advantage in a ruthless competition[33].

Second, highly competitive environments can enhance unethical behavior because we can perceive them as a threat. When people are under threat, they tend to defend themselves by, for example, prioritizing their own interests in detriment of ethical considerations[34]. Being aware of this is particularly important given that we perceive many things as a threat in competitive environments. For example, companies often adopt practices known to be threatening (tournaments for promotions, revenue generation prizes, sales competitions). As another example, an organizational change or transition (such as a CEO change or a redundancy analysis) can threat your current position, your power, your goals, your family’s sustainability, and even how competent you see yourself (for example, if you have to learn something in an area you do not excel). Large scale studies show that observed unethical behavior more than doubles when companies start implementing substantial changes[5].

Third, fierce competition can frustrate your innate psychological needs, leading to dysfunctional compensations. For example, people who are at risk of exclusion tend to engage in unethical behavior that benefits the company just to be accepted again[35]. Similarly, when people are very loyal and committed to their company, external competition presses them to cheat in order to help the company[36]. Finally, when the psychological need of competence and mastery is frustrated, many protect their feelings of competence by over-reporting performance[25].

The ethical culture of the organization

Ethical climate, leadership, language used, and codes of conduct are aspects of the company culture that have important ethical ramifications

Most companies have a set of beliefs, values, and assumptions that guide how ethically things are done around there. That is, in a nutshell, the ethical culture of the company[4] [37]. It taps into multiple aspects that can be more or less visible – while leaders’ ethical behaviors are pretty visible to everyone; the ethical values, ideologies, and aspirations can be a bit more difficult to spot and understand; and unconscious ethical assumptions are even more difficult to decipher.

These different aspects of an ethical culture are deeply intertwined and we tend to derive information about the deep-rooted aspects from the more visible ones. For example, a leader who thinks that “it is a tough world out there” (mostly a hidden assumption) may set highly competitive goals to avoid loafing and often declare “everyone for himself” (actual behaviors and visible values).

Ethical climate, leadership, language used, and codes of conduct are aspects of the company culture that have important ethical ramifications.

Ethical climate

Ethical climate is, in part, a manifestation of culture and reflects what most company members believe correct behavior is[38]. As such, as long as you share that belief, when you face an issue with ethical ramifications, the ethical climate of your company influences the paths you consider and what you end up doing.

Until now, researchers have uncovered three major types of ethical climates: egoistic, benevolent, and principled[4]. In egoistic climates, self-interest prevails over ethical considerations and the impact unethical behavior might have on others. In benevolent climates there is a deep care about most company’s stakeholders, including collaborators, clients, and the broad community. In principled climates, people truly believe in the importance of following the company’s ethical procedures and standards. Based on these descriptions, it should come at no surprise that multiple studies[4] [38] have found that egoistic climates open the door to unethical behavior, and that benevolent and principled climates foster ethical conduct.

Principled and benevolent climates can also stimulate unethical behavior when taken too far. We have already seen that a deep care and identification with the company might lead to unethical behavior intended to help the company[19].

Principled ethical climates ensure that everyone follows guidelines, rules, and procedures in the workplace. However, complying with the standards of a principled ethical climate does not guarantee ethical excellence. It is just a starting point to achieve a moral minimum and, in many cases, it is done simply to avoid sanctions and for self-protection[39]. For virtuous and ethical behavior, you also benefit from reflecting and understanding the intent behind the rules. Only then you can consistently transcend egoistic motives and do what is best for everyone. Unfortunately, we have seen many companies unintentionally undermining the benefits of the ethical climate they worked so hard to achieve. Practices like not providing a rationale for a new policy, and amending policies without giving time for people to reflect and consider the consequences of those changes, pressure people to blindly follow procedures.


The behaviors we all have at work are not innocuous, particularly those from people in leadership positions. Due to their formal position, leaders are under constant scrutiny. Employees look at them for clues on what is right and wrong, and in many instances replicate what they do. You may find yourself looking for leadership clues on what is ethically sound on aspects like[40] [41] [42]:

  • What do leaders pay attention to on a daily basis (only performance goals, or performance goals and ethical goals);
  • How do leaders react in a crisis (ethically or bending the rules);
  • To whom and how leaders allocate resources (to the ones engaging in questionable practices or to those who are playing by the book);
  • To what extent leaders themselves display the ethical behavior they are asking from employees, or whether there is a double standard;
  • To what extent leaders blindly follow procedures, or whether they make sure they also understand and accomplish the intent underlying those procedures;
  • To what extent leaders are prudent on their decisions, reflecting on the ethical ramifications of their decisions, or whether they act impulsively and without care for ethical and moral standards;
  • To what extent leaders’ decisions are based on formal guidelines and explicit policies or on personal preferences and favors.

Based on the information extracted from leaders’ ethically-relevant behaviors, people get a picture of the company’s ethical culture and start following its prescriptions on the procedures, policies, and practices to be followed. For example, it is well established that when leaders behave egoistically and unethically, they promote unethical behavior in the workplace[43] [44]. By focusing mainly on their own interests, unethical leaders stimulate the perception that the company emphasizes self-interest and end up encouraging people to make decisions based on their own self-interest. Self-interest becomes the cultural value, self-interested decisions the norm, and the ethical consequences of such decisions secondary, if not irrelevant.

In the video below, Wharton Professor Adam Grant shares an important tip on how to identify an ethical or unethical culture as a leader:


The language used in each organization is also part of its culture and a reflection of it. The language we use creates our reality, molds what we see, and can both limit and expand our ethical options.

In some instances, people and organizations, directly or indirectly, legitimize questionable practices by using euphemistic language (a mechanism of moral disengagement) that sanitizes unethical behaviors and practices[12] [45]. For example, instead of “massive layoff” you may hear “right-sizing” or “redundancy reduction”. Instead of “we used the profitable years’ surpluses to balance earnings during this tough year” you hear “we relied on our cookie jar reserve”[46]. Euphemisms turn an ethical issue into an ordinary business practice, disguise the reasons for the unethical behavior, and make the identification of the ethical issue less likely.

Even worst, ethically sanitized language can gradually erode your own ethical standards[47] [48]. When you use euphemistic language, unethical behavior is not framed as an ethical issue and it can go unnoticed under your ethical radar. As a consequence, you may begin to consistently engage in unethical behaviors, without intention or even awareness. However, when you use language that describes the unethical behavior accurately, your ethical radar is more likely to be triggered and you are more likely to do well. After all, the large proportion of us wants to behave ethically and to put forward our best behavior.

Codes of conduct

Culture can also promote ethical or unethical behaviors via formal codes of conduct. When present and enforced, codes of conduct specifically highlight appropriate and inappropriate behavior[4]. These codes tend to work relatively well because most of us judge what is right or wrong based on the expectations of others and on explicit policies and rules[13]. Very few people develop a reliable, universal and consistent code of ethical principles that guide their behavior and that focuses on respecting both their rights and the rights of others. Thus, for the majority of us, an explicit code of conduct that is actually embraced and implemented by everyone in the company pushes us away from behaving unethically.

However, these codes of conduct can become detrimental. For example, a well-written code of conduct that is not consistently enforced can actually enhance unethical behavior[4]. By not enforcing a code of conduct, you are basically giving people a step-by-step guide on how to engage in unethical behavior.

The formal codes can also backfire when the different aspects of the ethical culture of the company are not fully aligned. For example, large scale surveys[1] indicate that people report more than ever the unethical behaviors they see – that is, they comply with the formal codes most organizations have nowadays. However, these surveys also show that retaliation against those who report misconduct doubled in recent years, which suggests that while compliance with ethical codes may be increasing, non-compliance seems to be increasing as well. This misalignment creates a tension between what is written and what is actually done that weakens both the ethical culture of the company and our will to comply with the formal code.

How to prevent unethical behavior in your workplace

Pressures from your workplace, or those that you put on yourself, and many motivation-enhancing practices can make you derail and engage in cheating, lying, deceiving, and other forms of unethical behavior. Researchers have identified two complementary approaches to prevent unethical behavior in the workplace: structural and values-based approaches[49].

Structural approaches seek to improve companies’ practices in order to reduce the likelihood of unethical behavior and boost ethical action. Values-based approaches are the reminders and actions we can all put in place to reduce unethical behavior and improve the probability of ethical virtue.

Below is a list of simple but evidence-based strategies that have been shown to prevent unethical behavior and stimulate ethical excellence.

How to prevent unethical behavior in the workplace: Structural approaches and values-based approaches

Structural approaches to prevent unethical behavior

Remove available justifications for unethical behavior

Large scale studies indicate that having a reasonable justification to behave unethically is the strongest factor leading people towards unethical behavior[13]. This happens because when justifications for unethical behavior are available, most of us can maintain our honest person image and see our conduct as less severe or even rightful. Extreme performance pressure, excessive time pressure, conflict between roles at work, as well as having an unethical leader, a culture were unethical behavior is rewarded or ignored, and stiff competition are examples of organizational structures that people frequently use to justify their own unethical behavior.

To remove the availability of these justifications companies can, for example:

  • Eliminate specific role activities or redesign work roles so that they stop clashing;
  • Provide the necessary resources to achieve a goal (for example, time and budget);
  • Establish, with the participation of those doing the work, reasonable time frames to finish a task;
  • Provide the necessary training to those starting out so they can feel supported;
  • Provide training on moral reasoning and ethical virtue to leaders and to those with leadership potential/aspirations;
  • Develop and enforce a code of ethical conduct, explaining why the code is in place and the reasons behind updates, while also giving the necessary time for people to reflect on and understand the nuances of the code;
  • Develop and implement a set of clear and reasonable rules for promotions and pay raises, focused both on performance expectations and ethical conduct;
  • Put in place systems that foster an ethical climate and culture, such as easy to follow protocols to confidentially report unethical and illegal behavior (and ensure the system is not being unethically used to harm employees – for example by relying on multiple reports);
  • Identify and remove conflicts of interest in the execution of a task;
  • Align company practices with professional and occupational ethical standards.

Give people training on how to deliberate and time to do it

By reducing the time you have available to ponder about ethical issues, companies with a fast-paced culture end up evoking your more automatic responses of self-interested unethical behavior[14] [15].

In the real world, allocating time for systematic contemplation of ethical issues is unfeasible for many companies. Nevertheless, most can easily put systems in place that can foster ethical reflection and support ethical decisions. For example, your company can instill a “sleep over it” policy for consequential decisions and ensure that decisions with ethical ramifications are analyzed, debated, and approved by multiple members of staff. Training on ethical decision-making and ethical leadership also tends to reduce the incidences of unethical behavior at work[50]. As such, it tends to be a beneficial practice that most companies can adopt.

Focus on the process and on learning goals

Unethical behavior increases when companies are focused on performance goals (ask people to do better than others)[51]. The level of unethical behavior gets particularly high when companies give feedback based on employees’ performance rankings[52] and performance goals are difficult to achieve[11].

However, when companies ask people to continue learning, to keep improving professionally, and to be better than before (learning goals), unethical behavior is reduced drastically (even when goals are difficult)[11] [51]. Learning goals and opportunities tell you that success is measured both by results and by the ways it was achieved, and direct your attention towards the work to be done, not the end result to be achieved.

In our consulting experience, we have also noticed that, in some cases, an excessive focus on learning goals can lead people to lose focus and engage in unproductive work. Further, a former MBA student, already with a strong learning orientation, mentioned that improving his skills was a professional and moral duty to him. He felt that setting learning goals with the company was sometimes counterproductive, as he often would perceive them as patronizing and even below his own standards. Although these exceptions are unlikely to have unethical consequences, keep these nuances in mind so you can fine-tune your company’s practices.

Implement monitoring systems that maintain freedom of choice

Monitoring people at work is another approach that tends to reduce unethical behavior in the workplace. This happens because monitoring systems (recording calls and video surveillance, for example) signal that unethical behavior will be detected and wrongdoers held accountable[13]. However, some monitoring and surveillance systems are so invasive that they end up backfiring.

As human beings, we intrinsically value autonomy and freedom of choice. When we sense that we are being controlled by a monitoring system, we tend to lose our sense of autonomy and start complying only when the system is watching us. Yet, when we keep our freedom of choice and are simply reminded to be our best selves, the majority of us ends up complying with the formal regulations[8]. Not everyone, but many. We have seen many companies achieving this with something as simple as having the ethical values of the company hanging around the company facilities. Other companies remind staff members of their values by allocating time to discuss the ethical paths to difficult decisions.

Invasive monitoring systems can also reduce how much you take ethical considerations into account at work. When your calls are recorded or your email checked by monitoring systems, you receive signals of mistrust and are leaded to think about the costs and benefits of each decision you make. If your decisions are aligned with the procedures being monitored you are rewarded, if not, you are penalized. In fact, research shows that monitoring systems make you think less about the right thing to do (ethical considerations) and more about the costs and benefits of what you do (business and profit considerations)[53]. When you think mainly about averting penalties and collecting rewards, you reflect less upon how ethical your decisions are, and the possibility of unethical behavior rises.

Monitoring and surveillance systems, thus, need to be carefully planned. The successful ones tend to not only create the right conditions for ethical behavior (communicate ethical values, and motivate ethical reflection, for example) but also allow freedom of choice. Many companies have come up with very simple, yet effective, monitoring systems. For example, some companies reimburse work-related expenses with a per-diem allowance, instead of requesting a report of expenses. A reasonable per-diem allowance reduces the possibility of unethical behavior (you cannot over-report) and gives you freedom to make your own decisions within the budget.

If you want to know more about the structural approaches you can put in place in your company to prevent unethical behavior, watch the following interview to Francesca Gino, a Harvard Professor:

Values-based approaches to prevent unethical behavior

We have seen how important it is to work in environments that are filled with approaches boosting ethical virtue and devoid of the ones that enhance unethical behavior. However, not all of us work in such environments. Fortunately, you do not have to fall prey to an environment that adopts practices with ethical costs. You can also be the architect of a more ethical conduct at work by adopting a few reminders and practices yourself.

Proactively seek ethical examples

Faulty company cultures send the message that success is more important than the means used to obtain it and, as a consequence, increase the risk of unethical behavior[4]. Nevertheless, even when the culture of your company falls behind your ethical expectations, you can proactively search for and learn from ethical examples.

For instance, you can identify ethical role models inside the organization and familiarize yourself with the practices they adopt. Also, it is typical for an organization to have multiple sub-cultures. You can get in touch with and learn from those that are both productive and ethical.

Become a member of multiple social groups

Too much organizational identification can lead to wrongdoing with the intention to help the company[19].

If you feel you are excessively identified with your company, try to slowly but steadily build other pillars for your identity. Since your identity is substantially derived from your memberships to social groups[54], if you are over-identified with your company you can develop new memberships to balance things out. For example, start connecting with people and bringing new friends into your life who do not work in your company, recover a hobby that you loved or find a new one, or find a skill that you personally would like to master and work on it.

These activities build more pillars that can sustain you as an ethical person when you have tough calls in your organization. For example, being part of multiple groups exposes you to other ethical considerations that a single membership can shield you from. In fact, research shows that identifying with multiple groups is an important source of meaning, resilience, support, and well-being[55].

Frame issues at work as ethical issues

The way you frame issues at work has important ethical implications. Researchers have started to document the effects of framing on unethical behavior, and discovered that some of them are subtle.

For instance, researchers found that a 75% chance of losing a commission leads to more unethical behavior than a 25% chance of gaining a commission[56]. This means that when faced with the exact same issue at work, you are more likely to behave unethically if you look at it as a loss instead of as a gain. This happens because humans are particularly sensitive to losses and try to avoid them as much as possible, sometimes engaging in unethical practices to do so. Also, when you make a “business” decision you are more likely to behave unethically, compared to when you make an “ethical” or a “community” decision[57]. What this means is that by looking at an issue with ethical lens, you bring to your attention information that would otherwise be hidden and you have the opportunity to act upon it.

What these examples tell you is that the simple technique of reframing an issue can make you avert unethical behavior and push you towards ethical choices. This happens even when the initial framing that was presented to you had the potential to make you derail ethically.

Increase your self-awareness

By being aware of the practices that can sway you into doing something you do not want to do or something that will eventually hurt your company, you are already a step ahead of unethical behavior.

Nevertheless, you can take a step further to avert unethical behavior by increasing your self-awareness. Truly self-aware people clearly understand themselves (private self-awareness), how others see them (public self-awareness), and their environment (awareness of surroundings)[58] [59]. This means that self-aware people balance and reflect on multiple pieces of information. For example, they:

  • Understand and act according to their own ethical values, beliefs, and aspirations;
  • Understand their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the range of their knowledge and talents;
  • Reflect on how their cognitive processes and emotional reactions affect their decisions with ethical consequences;
  • Manage their emotional reactions and cognitive biases at work, so that ethical behavior is more likely;
  • Understand their impact on others and, as such, show their values and beliefs consistently and accurately;
  • Identify the pressures and practices at work that can make them derail ethically;
  • Look for the more hidden and unsuspected causes of unethical behavior that may be in place at work.

Given this, it comes at no surprise that research indicates that the more self-aware you are, the more you make sound decisions[60], show self-control when tempted to behave unethically[61], show ethical strength in face of difficulty and pressures to bend the rules[62], and take restorative measures to compensate for previous unethical behavior[63].

Self-awareness seems a lot of work, particularly if you are not naturally inclined to practice it. However, research uncovered simple things you can easily apply to boost your self-awareness and ethical behavior. For example, looking at a mirror tends to make you more self-aware and less likely to derail ethically[64]. If you are not sure about the ethical implications of something you are about to do, try to look at a mirror and ask yourself “is this the right thing to do?” or “is this aligned with my values?”.

Affirming to yourself the ethical values you endorse has also been shown to make you more self-aware and ethical at work[61]. Thus, make sure you have set your ethical values and that you can easily remind yourself of them (keep them in a place where you can review them frequently, for example). Also, when you are pressured to behave unethically, you can take a step back and reflect on your previous ethical achievements at work, or in other life areas. This reminds you of your best behavior and musters in you the courage to face the ethical issue[65].

Despite all the benefits of self-awareness, it is important to note that it also has some dysfunctions. When overdone self-awareness can, for example, make you feel depressed, alienated, ruminative, obsessively worried about mundane experiences, unmotivated, and overly critical of your behavior[66]. So, if you are taking self-awareness too far, try to temporarily distract yourself with something you enjoy doing[67], and focus on what you can do now to address the issue that is troubling you and to ensure it won’t happen again[68].

Here’s a video, from Professor Alexander Wagner (University of Zurich), on the importance of being aware of our values to dodge unethical behaviour at work:


Performance goals and time pressure, strong socialization programs leaving people over-identified with the company, conflict between one’s roles, excessive and no competition, and an unethical company culture are potent causes of unethical behavior in the workplace.

Thus, an effective way to prevent unethical behavior at work is to implement a series of structural changes in your company’s environment (practices, culture, climate, leadership).

If you are not fortunate enough to work in an ethically friendly environment, you can still avert unethical behavior by adopting simple but effective practices, like seeking other ethical models and improving your self-awareness.

Facing some sort of workplace environment or practice that puts you in danger of drifting ethically is almost an inevitable by-product of working. Hopefully, the information and tools we discussed in this article can give you a head start on environments and practices pushing you towards unethical behavior.

As always, we thank you for trusting your time with ManagingLifeAtWork.com. Until next time, keep behaving ethically at work.

References and further reading

  1. ^ a b Ethics & Compliance Initiative. (2018). “Global business ethics survey – 2018“. Ethics & Compliance Initiative.
  2. ^ Ratsula, N., Romberg, A., and Kvamme, H. (2019). “Nordic business ethics survey 2019” (p. 37). Nordic Business Ethics Network.
  3. ^ Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. (2020). “Report to the nations – 2020 – Global study on occupational fraud and abuse“. Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Kish-Gephart, J. J., Harrison, D. A., and Treviño, L. K. (2010). “Bad apples, bad cases, and bad barrels: Meta-analytic evidence about sources of unethical decisions at work“. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 1–31.
  5. ^ a b Ethics & Compliance Initiative. (2020). “Global Business Ethics Survey – 2020“. Ethics & Compliance Initiative.
  6. ^ Locke, E. A., and Latham, G. P. (2006). “New directions in goal-setting theory“. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 265–268.
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