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Are the Actions of People in the Workplace a Consequence of Individual or Organisational Characteristics? What Would Promote Ethical Behaviour at Work?

By Dhinesh001 Feb 27, 2013 4350 Words
Chapter 7

Managing for Ethical Conduct

Contents: (Please note: the Instructor Guide for every chapter will follow this structure.) 1. Chapter Outline
2. Teaching Notes
3. In-Class Exercises
4. Homework Assignments
5. Additional Resources

Chapter Outline

I. Introduction

II. In Business, Ethics Is about Behavior

A. Practical Advice for Managers: Ethical Behavior

III. Our Multiple Ethical Selves

A. The Kenneth Lay Example
B. The Dennis Levine Example
C. Practical Advice for Managers’ Multiple Ethical Selves

IV. Rewards and Discipline

A. People Do What is Rewarded and Avoid Doing What is Punished B. People Will Go the Extra Mile to Achieve Goals Set by Managers C. How Goals Combined with Rewards Can Encourage Unethical Behavior D. Practical Advice for Managers: Goals, Rewards, and Discipline E. Recognize the Power of Indirect Rewards and Punishments F. Can Managers Really Reward Ethical Behavior?

G. What about the Role of Discipline?
H. Practical Advice for Managers: Discipline

V. “Everyone’s Doing It”

A. People Follow Group Norms
B. Rationalizing Unethical Behavior
C. Practical Advice for Managers: Group Norms

VI. People Fulfill Assigned Roles

A. The Zimbardo Prison Experiment
B. Roles at Work
C. Conflicting Roles can Lead to Unethical Behavior
D. Roles Can Also Support Ethical Behavior
E. Practical Advice for Managers: Roles

VII. People Do What They are Told

A. The Milgram Experiments
B. Obedience to Authority at Work
C. Practical Advice for Managers: Obedience to Authority

VIII. Responsibility Is Diffused in Organizations

A. “Don’t Worry – We’re Taking Care of Everything” B. Diffusing Responsibility in Groups
C. Diffusing Responsibility by Dividing Responsibility
D. Diffusing Responsibility by Creating Psychological Distance E. Practical Advice for Managers: Personal Responsibility

IX. Conclusion

A. Am I Walking My Ethical Talk?

X. Discussion Questions

XI. Case: Sears, Roebuck and Co.: The Auto Center Scandal

XII. Short Case

Teaching Notes - Discussion Questions

1. Have you ever been in a situation, especially a work situation, where the norms supported a particular behavior, ethical or unethical, where you felt pressured to go along? Explain.

Undergraduate students have limited work experience. But, they will often cite examples from summer jobs, such as working in a fast food restaurant, where the rules said you could not eat the food, but everyone did. Or, they may have had a job where they worked hard at first, but after being charged with "rate-busting," slowed down to match the work levels of regular workers.

Graduate students with work experience will have lots of examples - some good and some bad. It is good to solicit both. That way the message is clear that organizations and managers vary and perhaps one should attempt to learn about the ethical values of an organization or manager before accepting a job.

Probes to Stimulate Discussion

With examples of pressure toward unethical behavior, ask:
"What was the nature of the pressure? Why did you feel you should go along? What options did you think you had, if you did not go along?"

With examples of pressure toward ethical behavior, ask:
* "How did you feel about the pressure?" Often the reaction is quite positive. Rather than pressure, they may experience it as "support" for doing the right thing. Discuss the difference.

* "Do you think it is okay to pressure people to do 'the right thing,' such as supporting a blood drive or the United Way?"

2. Have you ever been in a situation where the rewards explicitly or implicitly supported unethical conduct? Explain.

Again, the discussion will depend upon examples generated by the students. The most frequent examples will probably be the sales job that rewards on commission and provides no guidance regarding how the goal is reached.

3. Can you think of situations in which unethical behavior was dealt with appropriately (punished justly) or inappropriately? What were the reactions of others in the organization?

Generally, students will speak positively about situations where "bad guys" were punished, and negatively about situations where people "got away with" misconduct. This reaction supports the idea that people want to work in “just” environments, where reasonable rules are enforced.

Probes to Stimulate Discussion

* "How would you feel if someone cheated on a test and was not disciplined?"

* “Would you feel differently if the test was curved?”

This is the time to discuss the important social effects of rewards and punishments. As a manager, you need to think about not only the person you are rewarding or punishing, but also the reactions of others who are aware of the situation. They will judge your behavior primarily in terms of its fairness to everyone. The situation with cheating is similar to a work situation, where there is a fixed pie of benefits (e.g., bonus money) and one salesperson who is using unethical sales tactics is likely to get the money, while the honest salespeople will be left with nothing (but their integrity).

4. What do you think would be appropriate punishment for those found guilty of assault or indecent exposure in the Tailhook situation? Why?

This question will probably generate a lively discussion. You may want to see, if the answers differ for females versus males and those with military experience versus those without military experience. One point that is important to make, however, is that management of the Navy needs to take responsibility for whatever role it played in allowing this behavior to continue year after year. It was obviously considered a "rewarding" experience for many of the men involved, and we know that people do what is rewarded. So, it might be most appropriate to discipline individuals at the highest levels, who were responsible for tacitly condoning the behavior.

On Nov. 14, 1994, Newsweek ran an article entitled "The Military Fights the Gender Wars," p. 35. [Source (either embedded in text, or footnoted): Morganthau, Tom. “The Military Fights the Gender Wars,” Newsweek, Nov. 14, 1994, p. 35.] It discussed sex-related scandals in the Navy and at West Point. At West Point, women cadets complained that they were fondled by army football players during an October pep rally. Citing that they had learned the lesson of Tailhook, Lt. Gen. Howard Graves (superintendent of the academy) notified the Pentagon, launched an immediate investigation, and talked to the New York Times openly.

Paula Coughlin, the Tailhook Navy lieutenant, won a $6.7 million jury award from the Las Vegas hotel where the convention occurred.

In 1996, Newsweek reported that, in the four years since Tailhook, the Navy had received more than 1,000 sexual harassment complaints and more than 3,500 charges of indecent assault. [Source (either embedded in text, or footnoted): “Anchors Aweigh,” Newsweek, Feb. 5, 1996,, Access date.]

There have been other sex-related scandals in the military more recently, including students at the Air Force Academy, who claimed that they were raped by fellow students and that school officials either ignored their complaints, or punished the accusers for complaining. Students can be asked to do research to bring the Tailhook discussion up to date. You can also discuss how the military’s experience relates to the experiences of other work organizations with sexual harassment.

Probes to Stimulate Discussion

* "What do the women/men in the class think?"

* "What do those with military experience think?"

* "How should punishment be distributed to participants and high ranking officers who did not participate, but tacitly 'allowed' such behavior to occur?"

5. Have you ever felt obligated to do something you felt was wrong, because a person in a position of authority told you to do it?

Discussion related to this question will rely upon students' experience. Expect to hear stories about experience in sales positions, where students are told to be dishonest with customers in order to sell their wares -- telling someone the shoes fit when they do not, or that buying a coat in July is really a good idea!

6. Think about how you might design work to maximize workers' taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

Possible Answers

Make employees responsible for a whole, identifiable piece of work. The more it is chopped up into pieces, the less likely they are to be aware of the consequences.

Create opportunities for employees to interact with the people who might be affected by their behavior or decisions.

Both of these answers relate to the job design literature, which suggests that jobs designed along these lines would also be more motivating.

7. Evaluate yourself or a manager you know using the "do you walk your talk" questions above.

Probes to Stimulate Discussion

* “Are these the right questions to ask?”

* “Are there others we should be asking?”

In-Class Exercises

Case #1: Sears, Roebuck, and Company: The Auto Center Scandal

Case-based Questions and Answers

1. Identify the ethical issues involved in the case from a consequentialist and deontological perspective (refer to Chapter 2).

Deontological approaches seem most useful here. For example, fairness, honesty, and the obligation to provide customers with only needed service, are the most obvious ethical issues in the case.

Consequentialist approaches would point one toward the costs to society of thousands of people paying for unnecessary service. The primary harm seems to be monetary and the loss of trust.

A virtue ethics approach begs the question, what is the relevant community here? Mechanics and service advisors are not professionals with established codes to guide their conduct. However, they would probably agree that people of integrity do not lie. And, doing so certainly would not look very good on the front page of the local newspaper.

2. Identify the management issues involved in the case. For example, think about the case in terms of multiple ethical selves, norms, reward systems, diffusion of responsibility, and obedience to authority. What factors contributed the most to the alleged unethical conduct on the part of service advisors and mechanics?

Multiple ethical selves: Most of the people who were dishonest to customers are probably upstanding members of the community, who think of themselves as good, honest people. It is likely that their self-perception did not change because of their behavior at work.

Norms: It seems that dishonesty became the norm in this environment. It became the way things were done.

Roles: Consider making quality an important part of the mechanic and service advisor roles. Another possibility is to create a new role - quality control person. But, this is not an ideal solution. Why check up after the fact, if you can avoid problems from the start? This case also suggests that there are role conflicts for those who diagnose problems and sell service to customers. These roles should be separate.

Reward System: Clearly the reward system is the biggest problem in this case. Management has designed a reward system that focuses on ends (quantity, not quality), but not means (honesty with customers). It also rewards people not only for selling more service, but implicitly rewards them for being dishonest. It also punishes those who are honest, if by being honest you will do less repair work. For a company that has prided itself on customer service over the years, this new reward system created problems with consumer trust that take years to rectify. The reward system contributed the most to the unethical conduct. The reward system can be changed to focus goals on quality, customer satisfaction, and/or repeat customers, rather than amount of service sold. A great exercise - have students design this new reward system.

Diffusion of responsibility: Diffusion of responsibility is a factor in this case, especially with the new reward system that maintains commission for mechanics. For example, if a mechanic is the one diagnosing the problem, he/she may list more problems (or bigger problems) than really exist, because of the reward system. But, this is even more possible because he/she might think, "I'm not the one really advising the customer.""I'm just making a list of problems and handing it to the service advisor." So, the responsibility for the bad advice is diffused between the mechanic and the service advisor. And, it is possible for either or both to point to the other as "really responsible." Psychological distance comes into play here as well. If the mechanic never sees the customer, it is probably easier to be dishonest than if he/she has to lie to the customer face-to-face.

Obedience to authority: Nobody was openly telling these people to be dishonest. But, in the absence of clear statements, employees will try to figure out what authority figures want them to do. In this case, employees figured out that management wanted them to sell more service at any cost - and they did.

3. How would you evaluate Sears' response to the allegations and the changes they made? Has Sears resolved its problem? Why or why not?

Brennan's response was weak. He should have apologized and fully accepted management's responsibility for creating a faulty reward system. He should also send a strong message to employees about future expectations.

Some of the ideas that were implemented are okay. For example, commissions based upon customer satisfaction should turn attention to satisfying the customer, rather than selling a certain number of brake jobs. And, shopping audits can provide management with useful information about the kind of service customers are really getting. However, Sears has definitely not resolved the problem. The fact they the company maintained the compensation system for mechanics is a huge problem. As the letter from Chuck Fabbri stated so well, mechanics are frequently the ones who provide the diagnosis. This system encourages them to oversell or recommend more repair work than is needed.

4. What do you think is the impact of the scandal on Sears' reputation for quality and service?

There is no good way to know, but thousands of business school students are studying this case every year through versions published in this book and elsewhere. It might be interesting to conduct a brief survey of students in the class, to find out whether they would take their car to Sears, or what they would advise their parents to do.

It might be interesting to note that, since the scandal, Sears has invested heavily in a corporate ethics program. They even won an award for it. So, they seem to be aware of the importance of ethics and their reputation.

5. Respond to Brennan's comment, "We have to have some way to measure performance." What can management do to prevent "overselling?" Propose a management plan (including a compensation system) that allows management to measure performance and encourages auto center employees to behave ethically. Be specific.

Certainly, management needs some way to measure performance, but they selected inappropriate ways to do it. Again, any goals or incentives based on sales run the risk of promoting the sale of unnecessary service, or overselling. At the very least, if they insist on sales quotas, they must counterbalance these with strong ethics training, and harsh and enforced penalties for dishonesty. They certainly should not punish people for being honest.

The company might think about implementing a straight salary system, with bonuses for quality, customer satisfaction (based on surveys), and referrals. Some of these could be team-based, which would encourage mechanics to work together, consult each other for ideas on how to solve problems, etc.

It would probably also help to have the mechanic meet the customer and talk with him or her about the problem (reducing psychological distance). Midas muffler mechanics work in glassed-in shops, so that customers can watch them work. They also bring customers into the shop to show them what is wrong - the hole in the muffler, for example. Obviously, that is easier with mufflers, but it could probably be done with other problems, and would do a lot to inspire trust.

An important part of any new reward system will be to make it clear that any future dishonesty will be harshly disciplined, and then following through.

The current system focuses only on selling more service to current customers. How about looking beyond these customers, to think about ways to bring more customers in? They might consider getting service employees involved in coming up with creative ideas to attract new customers. If they are successful, they should share in the profits. Goals or incentives based on quality, new customers, referrals, or customer satisfaction, focus on satisfying customers. Service managers and mechanics would then be motivated to satisfy customers over the long term, rather than to make short-term sales. Sears might also consider implementing some kind of simple code to guide mechanics, like, "Would I recommend this service if this were my mother's car?"

You can have students work in teams to design a reward system. They can present their ideas to the other teams who can play the role of devil’s advocate. Given the reward system, what is the behavior that is rewarded, punished? Hopefully, students will learn what an important management role designing reward systems is.

6. Should anyone be disciplined? If so, who and when? What should the discipline be?

Take care when discussing this question. Students (especially undergraduates) will often want to harshly discipline the "unethical" workers - to make an example of them. But, discipline must be perceived to be fair (by observers and by those punished), if it is going to be effective. So, first, management must take responsibility for its role in tacitly encouraging the unethical behavior through the poorly designed reward system. The best answer here is for management to acknowledge its role, to make clear that things are changing, to change the reward system to one that does not encourage unethical behavior, to state clearly that unethical behavior will be harshly punished in the future, and then to follow through at the first opportunity. Under these circumstances, discipline will be very appropriate and necessary.

7. Think more generally about Sears’s management’s response to the firm’s financial problems. How else could they have increased auto center sales without providing incentives to employees to sell specific products?

There are many possible responses to this question. They could offer discounts in an attempt to increase volume, improve customer service, so that people are more likely to come back for service when they need it, etc.

An additional resource for the Sears case:

Rucci, A.J., S.P. Kirn, andR.T. Quinn. 1998. “The Employee-Customer-Profit Chain at Sears,” Harvard Business Review, 76(1): 82-97. A good teaching note to accompany the case. (Thanks to Stu Youngblood at Texas Christian University for bringing this to our attention).

Case #2: Another Short Case for Discussion

1. What are the ethical issues in this case?

Fairness is a prominent issue in this case. What is the fairest allocation of resources, given the three regions’ size and needs? The fairest approach is to support all three regions, not just Bill’s. The golden rule would certainly support that position, as would Kant’s categorical imperative. Fairness comes up again, when Bill says he will recommend you and your people for every award, AND give you a monetary bonus out of his own pocket. That begins to feel like bribery and undue influence and should be avoided at all costs.

2. What are some reasons why the decision maker in this case might be inclined to go along? Not go along?

Obedience to authority may come into play here. Bill does represent the largest region and the biggest money maker. Depending upon the company’s values, Bill may have more power than the other regional directors, and that puts pressure on the decision maker in this case. But, the decision maker’s gut should be screaming about the fairness and bribery issues as well, which would make him or her think more than twice about the situation.

3. If you were the decision maker, how would you handle the situation?

This probably depends a lot on the organization’s culture. In some organizations, Bill would be allowed to get away with these shenanigans, because of his region’s financial success. The best approach is to first have a frank conversation with Bill about the situation and your fairness concerns. You can explain that your approach will be to work with each regional director with equal enthusiasm and provide the best service possible to all of them. You also need to be clear that you cannot accept the monetary bonus. If he continues to insist on preferential treatment, you might suggest that you and all of the regional directors have a problem-solving meeting with their manager to discuss the situation. If you take a problem-solving approach, you may be able to come up with a creative solution. For example, if Bill’s area is clearly the most important to the company, maybe you can designate a particular person or persons to work closely with Bill. The organization might even pay for additional staff. But, whatever you do, it needs to be out in the open and not some side deal.

Would you report the conversation to your manager? Why or why not?

You could certainly solicit advice and support from your manager on this sticky situation. That is what managers are there for. Your manager may have information about Bill and the others that could be helpful in working the situation out. You may also gain insight into what the organization’s stance is likely to be, by talking with your manager.

Homework Assignment

Please note that either of the in-class discussion cases would make excellent homework assignments.

Additional Resources:

1. Video: “Obedience”
A 45-minute, classic film about Milgram's experiments is entitled "Obedience." Although the film is old, it makes an extremely powerful statement about the notion that "people do what they're told." We recommend that you preview the film and then prepare students for what is to come. Students typically react to the "worst" obedience scenes with nervous laughter. If you explain to them that they are likely to react that way, they will understand their own discomfort better. Advise them to feel free to laugh, but to think about why they are laughing and be prepared to discuss that. Be sure that you leave enough time for discussion. Students will often argue that "people are different now" and that they would never comply as those in the film did. The major point to be made here is that the research overwhelmingly supports the idea that people do what they are told. This was not just one study, but many studies that are documented in Milgram’s book. Therefore, managers/leaders have a great deal of influence on most people's conduct and that responsibility must be taken seriously.

Another important point to be made is that experiments such as Milgram's could not be done today because of the Human Subjects Committees at universities that protect the rights of research subjects.

2. Video: “Quiet Rage”
A newer, 50-minute video entitled, “Quiet Rage; the Stanford Prison Study,” is similarly powerful. It is narrated by Zimbardo and includes scenes from the actual experiment. It is highly recommended for discussion on the power of roles to mold behavior. Reading about the experiment just does not convey all of its complexity.

3. Video: “Invitation to Social Psychology”
A shorter film/video, entitled "Invitation to Social Psychology," has very brief vignettes from both Milgram's and Zimbardo's studies.

Both the full-length Milgram film and the Zimbardo film are highly recommended for students at any level. Students report that they are thought-provoking and memorable. The important lessons about the power of obedience and roles will not be forgotten soon.

Some websites devoted to Stanley Milgram and his work can be found by putting “Stanley Milgram” into the Google search engine.

4. Primetime Live – a recent “Obedience” experiment
In November, 2005, Primetime Live ran a powerful segment about a situation that occurred in a number of McDonald’s restaurants. Much of the segment was from video, recorded on a McDonald’s surveillance camera. A man, saying he was a policeman, called. He claimed to have a McDonald’s manager with him. He requested to talk to the restaurant manager and told this manager that a young female employee who he described had stolen something and should be called into the private office. The caller proceeded to make requests that involved requiring the 18-year old woman to take off her clothes, so that she can be searched, and worse. The young woman in the segment ended up being physically abused by a man (the restaurant manager’s boyfriend, who was called in to watch the young woman, while the manager went back to work). The restaurant manager, a middle-aged woman, came across as not evil, but simply following orders from an authority figure (a policeman). She never questioned him about his requests. The segment was not available to purchase when we last checked, but it has been rerun. So, you may want to look for it. We tell you about it, because sometimes students say, “Oh, this couldn’t happen today.” This story clearly counters that belief. P.S. The perpetrator was caught (by tracking down his calling card). For more information and the script of the segment, see

You can also purchase a DVD that ABC created. It is available on as part of a series ABC News Primetime called “Basic Instincts” – it is number 5 in the series and is entitled “The Milgram Experiment Re-Visited.” It demonstrates how a University of Santa Clara psychologist replicated the Milgram experiment (with some serious tweaks to reflect today’s ethical standards). It shows variations on the Milgram experiment, as well as a very short segment on the McDonald’s story. If you use it (especially the part about what happened at McDonald’s), you may want to warn the class. We have had students get upset (one young man who had daughters found it very difficult to watch; a young woman who had been sexually abused also had a negative reaction). But, the large majority of students find this to be an extraordinarily educational video.

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