Solving Ethics Violations: Beyond Punishment

By Jan H. Katz Phd., Cornell School of Hotel Administration

July 14, 2016

In my thirty plus years of teaching management, I’ve learned the major difference between myself and my students: like most professors, I want to sit alone in my office and think; like most managers, my students want to get in the “real world” and act.

Luckily, few PhD’s become managers because if they did, little would get done. Sometimes, however, a little of that extra thinking could help managers. Their love of action sometimes leads them to throw answers at problems too early, before they’ve identified the cause of the problem. When addressing ethics violations, that is often the case.

Ethics violations occur when people know what they are doing is “wrong”, but do it anyhow. They take things from the workplace to use at home; they call in sick when they’re on vacation; they leave early, but have a friend check them out at the right time. Typically, management tries to resolve these problems by increasing oversight to catch the wrong-doers and increasing penalties to scare workers into line. That solution assumes that employees think about ethical violations in terms of crime and punishment – if the punishment is great enough, they’ll forego the benefits of cheating.

Often though, employees are not thinking in those terms. Ethical violations are instead justified through social logic: I’m getting back at my unfair boss or everyone is doing it. Increasing the severity of oversight and punishment only exacerbates those issues because management seems less fair and it creates an us-against-them culture, which makes employees more likely to act at odds with management’s interests. Instead of resolving the ethical violations, increasing oversight and punishment often just leads employees to develop cleverer ways to cheat.

The key to reducing ethical violations in those cases is to create a broader ethical social environment where employees don’t feel bosses are unfair (see one technique in last month’s column) and where employees believe that their colleagues act ethically. To achieve that, managers must model ethical behavior. Any questionable practices by management gives employees “the right” to act unethically themselves. As well, explicitly pointing out and congratulating employees who do the right thing proves that everyone isn’t doing it and that management appreciates good behavior. And, as always, managers have to communicate expectations clearly and follow through on promises. That helps to create a trusting workplace which makes everything easier.

Contact Jan H. Katz Phd. if you have any questions or for more information: jan.katz@cornell.ed

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