One of the many examples in ‘The Ethical Executive’ by Robert Hoyk and Paul Hersey (www.vivagroupindia.com) describes a bizarre experiment by Donna Gelfand at the University of Utah, which had, as its subjects, about 300 men and women, who were adult shoppers in two drugstores.
“A shoplifter, a 21-year-old confederate, gained the attention of an unsuspecting shopper by dropping a store item. The confederate was given a signal (from a hidden observer via a concealed radio communication) when the shopper was looking at her. She then stole several items, placing them in her handbag, and left the store in a hurry without stopping at the cash register.”
The authors continue that when shoppers were later questioned about the incident, it was learnt that though all of the subjects had seen the shoplifting only 28 per cent of them had reported it.
“If 72 per cent of people don’t report an illegal behaviour by a total stranger, imagine the percentage of people who ignore transgressions in a business environment in which people work together as a team, especially if the transgressor is your boss, who has the power to fire you – whistleblowing can be ‘career suicide.’”
A bold example, in contrast, is of an employee in the research department of Beech-Nut Nutrition Corporation who, in the 1980s, expressed concerns about the ingredients of the company’s ‘100% pure’ apple juice. “In reality the apple juice contained ‘nothing more than sugar water and chemicals.’ Because the fake apple juice was 25 per cent cheaper, it allowed management ‘to meet cost-control goals.’”
When the researcher began raising concerns, ‘he was accused of not being a team player,’ and when time for his annual performance review, his supervisor commented of judgment ‘coloured by naiveté and impractical ideals,’ reports the book.
One of the traps of unethical workplace is ‘self-serving bias,’ which can cause one to say, ‘Yes, what happened was wrong, but it wasn’t my fault.’ It’s our tendency to take credit for success and to attribute failure to external causes, the authors note. “When we externalise blame – more often than not – it’s not a lie, it’s something we actually believe.”
They narrate the case of Ford Explorer which initiated a massive recall in August 2000, as a response to allegations that the tires caused fatal accidents. “Following the recall, the Ford Motor Company began an analysis of approximately 13 million Firestone tires that were still being utilised on Ford Explorers and trucks.”
In May of 2001, when Ford met with Firestone to talk about ‘tire safety,’ Firestone, instead, wanted to talk about the Ford Explorer. Predictably, what then followed was that each company blamed the other publicly. More dramatically, “Firestone ended its business relationship with Ford – a relationship that had been ongoing for 95 years. Ford announced that it ‘did not have confidence in the tire’ and replaced the 13 million tires still in use.”