Research perspectives

Unethical behaviour? The questions dispute resolvers can ask

B3sixty Director Clive Bane argues that a recent CIPD report on dealing with unethical behaviour is of considerable help to dispute resolvers.

Set against the background of failures of governance and compliance in all sectors of he economy, the recent CIPD research report “Rotten Apples, Bad Barrels and Sticky Situations” is a timely reminder of the importance of having an ethical organization. Written primarily for HR professionals who very often are the ones faced with dealing with the consequences of unethical behaviour, the insights in this report are also of considerable use to those engaged in investigating disputes and facilitating dispute resolution.

The Report’s title is itself a guide on how to approach and analyse unethical behaviour – is it individual causation, a function of the wider organsational structure and culture or the specifics of the circumstances when decisions on a particular course of action have to be made?

Having drawn together published research on the topic, the report identifies nine areas of action that employers can take that are most likely to have a positive impact on workplace ethics.

By turning these statements into questions they can also provide a helpful analytical tool for dispute resolvers, particularly when seeking to understand the context of their assignment.

Is the organisation consistently enforcing its codes of conduct?

Although the report is rightly sceptical of the “tick box” approach to compliance, codes of conduct are an important bedrock and therefore a point of reference when unethical behaviour takes place. Not all organisations have clearly laid out and accessible codes, and sometimes there can be a time-consuming search through a plethora of documents to find an appropriate standard by which to judge behaviour.

Is the organisation communicating carefully about unethical behaviour and ethical standards?

This includes, but goes well beyond the point above about codes of conduct. It also refers to the way messages sent to employees are framed, to the existence and standards of induction and assessment, to the need for regular training and development, and crucially the modeling and reinforcing role that leaders – at all levels – play.

Is there a focus on ethical climate and the organisational practices that shape it?

 The report eschews the use of “nebulous” culture in explaining unethical behaviour in favour of the notion of “ethical climate” which is influenced by more tangible factors. These include procedures and practices, core to the dispute resolver’s understanding of how to take matters forward, as well as issues of role design and well being, both of which so often form the basis for long-standing and complex grievances in organisations.

Is organisational fairness promoted and political behaviour challenged?

The report believes that employees are more likely to act unethically if they perceive the organisation to be unfair. This may be demonstrated for example by unfairness in reward or by inconsistent application of policies. Organisational politics is also a factor, with fear leading employees to take a “cover my back” approach. Such an impoverished organisational climate can prevent employees from speaking out, giving a dispute resolver a much more difficult job in gathering evidence or resolving the conflict.

Does the organisation understand and manage the impact of personality and mood?

Personality traits such a narcissism, Machiavellianism or psychopathy, and passive moods such as frustration or complacency are also linked to unethical behaviour, the report finds, whilst also accepting that this is a difficult area to translate into practical action. The dispute resolver needs to be careful not to lapse into amateur psychiatry, however an awareness that such traits and moods exist is an important starting point.

Are the risk factors related to job design managed?

It is perhaps not immediately easy to see how job design can influence unethical behaviour. High-pressure roles can create a risk that ethical issues do not get picked up or are ignored; and where roles separate indviduals and the consequences of there actions it makes unethical decision-making more likely. There is also the way in which roles are designed in relation to each other and how they fit into the wider organizational structure. For the dispute resolver this is often a fertile area to explore, particularly where individuals “grieve” against each other for work-related reasons.

Are targets realistic and is reward linked to multiple complementary outcomes?

The report finds that hard-to-reach and short-term goals, particularly in competitive environments, can put undue pressure on employees, thus increasing the risk of unethical behaviour. In these situations employees become more likely to ignore ethical consequences, focusing instead on potential short-term benefits.

Is there accountability and are checks and balances in decision-making in place?

Employees who lack effective supervision, work in isolation or where the consequences of unethical behaviour are far removed from the impact their decisions will have on others, are more likely to act unethically. Managers who have clear accountability are less likely to sanction unethical behaviour. There is an obvious link here to job design and organisational structure.

Are employees empowered to speak up and are safe whistleblowing channels provided?

The report concludes by saying that individuals need to assume responsibility for actions and be confident and willing to challenge when they are concerned. From senior leaders to front-line employees, there should be an expectation not to compromise ethics by following the path of least resistance.

A good test for the dispute resolver is whether the organisation not only has whistleblowing procedures in place; that are they being used; and crucially do employees feel able to to report issues or raise concerns. Has the organisation supported this through guidance and training on how to challenge ethically questionable decisions or practices.

It is clear from all this that the causes of unethical behaviour are complex. There is, as the report says, “no silver bullet” to eradicate such behaviour. However by understanding the individual-level, organisational and situational factors, dispute resolvers can take evidence-based approach to their work.