The Difficulty of Being Ethical in a Difficult Economy

Notes from the McCombs Alumni Network’s 8th Annual Alumni Business Conference on February 8, 2012.

Robert PrenticeRobert Prentice, Chair, Business, Government and Society Department, McCombs School of Business

“We are all Lance Armstrong…sort of.”

Robert Prentice began his lively remarks with a suggestion to visit the Ethics Unwrapped Website, that features a new free video series on business ethics and corporate social responsibility.

“The good news is, you’re not as unethical as you could be!” he says with a smile. “Everyone of us has the opportunity to mug little old ladies and steal candy from a baby, congratulations on not doing that. But, the bad news is, you’re not as ethical as you think you are.”

“We all lie a little bit when it suits us. We are all Lance Armstrong…sort of,” he says. “So the word of the day is humility. When you read about the latest scandal of the day, everyone thinks it couldn’t happen to them, but it could.”

Prentice points out that most people, even him, want to think of themselves as good people. Most people frequently act unethically, usually in minor ways. “When we can fudge a little bit to help ourselves out we frequently do it. Not that we know we are doing it.”

He says our brain is part of the problem in business ethics or other aspects of our moral lives, influencing our decisions based on factors such as:

“Most of us feel like we have rock solid character that leads us to act morally,” he says. “I want to believe that, too, but there continues to be research that points to the contrary.”

Prentice quickly reviews several research studies that point to peoples tendency to bend the rules when faced with:

  • Authority Figures–we are raised to be obedient to parents, bosses, police, etc.
  • Conformity Bias–everyone else is doing it, or thinking it, so it must be right.
  • Time Pressure–ethical considerations have less influence when we are rushed.
  • Self-control Depletion–some conditions such as job dissatisfaction deplete our self-control, leading to more cheating.
  • Emotions–whether happy, sad, angry or frightened, our emotions flavor our decisions.
  • Transparency–if we feel others can see our actions we tend to act more ethically.
  • Role Morality–the role we are asked to play (such as being a manager or an employee) can impact our ethical decisions, positively or negatively.

“In the end, nobody can monitor you as well as you can monitor you,” he says. “If you want to be a good person, realize that there are a lot of forces working against you. You have to be aware of these factors, you have monitor the situation, and you have to police yourself.”

I highly recommend Prentice’s wide-ranging blog on business ethics and corporate social responsibility. The Ethics Unwrapped Blog.

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