Companies or institutions, particularly those who have suffered a scandal of some kind, often resolve on a zero-tolerance policy for unethical behaviour. But this policy is likely to backfire if the right approach isn’t adopted, says the Ethics Institute of South Africa (EthicsSA).
“A scandal has a hugely negative impact on an organisation and usually results in personal humiliation for its members, so deciding ‘never again’ is both understandable and laudable,” says Professor Deon Rossouw, CEO of EthicsSA. “But care needs to be taken because zero tolerance often translates into an overwhelming focus on the strict policing of rules, and that’s an approach that is not sustainable and can even be counterproductive.”
The real issue here is the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation for actions. A focus on policing and enforcement means that individuals never internalise, and appropriate for themselves, the desired ethical principles. The unintended consequence is a mindset of “if it’s not forbidden, then it must be allowed”, simply because people become used to being told what to do, and do not apply their minds to doing the right thing.
In fact, it can be that people then begin to exercise their creativity to get round the rules and, as we all know, human creativity seems to be inexhaustible in this area!
Professor Rossouw says that the same factors can be seen at play when it comes to safety regulations, say at a mine after a fatality. Managers often observe that the moment employees leave the work environment with its strict safety rules, they indulge in highly unsafe practices. In other words, the safety-first principle has not been internalised.
To realise the intention behind a zero-tolerance approach—to prevent any future ethical breaches from occurring—it is necessary to take the longer route of convincing an organisation’s members that ethical behaviour is beneficial to them and the organisation, and is thus worthwhile on its own account. As part of driving this message home, he says, the greatest effort should go into recognizing and praising those who do act ethically, setting them up as role models, with much less time spent on policing and enforcement.
According to Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, we model our behaviour on “individuals whose actions seem to be getting rewarded”.1 It’s thus vital that organisations pay due attention to rewarding publicly individuals who act ethically, in small and large matters.
As part of the same process, the organisation’s commitment to ethical behaviour needs to be made crystal clear in the words and actions of its leaders, and everybody who infringes the ethical code must be held strictly to account.
“It’s a question of striking the right balance between encouragement of the right behaviours and punishment of the wrong behaviours,” Professor Rossouw concludes. “It’s not that we shouldn’t formulate and enforce rules, but we have to get the context right in order to change convictions—that way, we will change the way people behave even when nobody is watching.”
1 Susan Krauss Whitbourne, “We all need role models to motivate and inspire us”, Pyschology Today 19 November 2013, available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201311/we-all-need-role-models-motivate-and-inspire-us
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