Why Do Good People Make Unethical Choices?

Guest Post by Chuck Gallagher

Is it safe to say that all organizations are expected act in an ethical manner when it comes to the legal, moral, and professional conduct related to the fulfillment of their professional responsibilities?  Who wouldn’t answer YES to this question? 

Yet, in my work as a professional ethics consultant and advocate, I have seen more examples of circumstances where good people, people that are well intentioned, make bad choices by taking one step on the slippery slope of unethical activity. 

The process of making bad choices, unethical choices, begins with a simple almost thoughtless decision.  How do I know?  Well, I am living proof that good people can make some really bad choices and the consequences most certainly can be devastating.  While not proud of this sentence, I have made unethical choices and spent time in federal prison as a result.  So, suffice it to say, I know a thing or two about the simplicity of making one step on the slippery slope that can lead a person to choices that are life changing.

The Three Components of Bad Behavior

If you look at any ethical failure there are three components that always are present in some form or fashion.  Need, Opportunity and Rationalization.  If one component is missing the ethical lapse fails or you can’t stand on the three-legged stool.

Need. Described as perceived pressure that a person is experiencing, is the first and critical component of what motives a person to stray from ethical to unethical. Need may come in a variety of forms. Typically need is triggered by financial issues, relationship issues or health concerns.  When life gets out of balance the NEED index rises dramatically.

Opportunity. It makes no difference what your need may be if you don’t have the opportunity to satisfy it then the unethical and potentially illegal choice fails. Without Opportunity there is no fuel for the potential unethical fire.

Rationalization. Need combined with opportunity provides a firm foundation, but the glue that holds unethical activity together is the ability to rationalize that what is wrong, is right.  If you ask most people found guilty of unethical/illegal behavior, they will tell you they felt their actions were legitimate.

The mind can be tricky and when you combine need with opportunity, and can rationalize bad behavior as good, you have the perfect storm to move from ethical to unethical, and potential illegal, behavior.

Your Ethical Culture

Every organization needs to remember that the creation of an ethical culture is exemplified in the actual behavior and attitudes of all team members.  The question is not so much whether you talk the talk (in policy documents, training materials or video or webinars), but whether you walk the walk. 

From a business ethics perspective, do you want to create a culture of ethical behavior in your organization? It’s easy if you think about it. When you start by understanding how good people make bad choices, and follow it with an effective ethics-training program that reinforces ethical choices and accountability, you have a recipe for success. Every choice has a consequence. What choices do you make for your organization to help keep your most valuable assets between the ethical lines?

Chuck Gallagher is a business ethics expert, consultant, keynote speaker, and author of Second Chances.