From Baseball to Accounting: Why We Encourage Unethical Behavior

Last Updated Jan 28, 2008 10:22 AM EST

It may not be right, but we often overlook unethical behavior in others. In a recent working paper, Harvard Business School professor Max Bazerman and colleagues explain the psychological reasons why this is so, and what companies can do about it.

The paper, See No Evil: When We Overlook Other People's Unethical Behavior, says we tend to ignore bad behavior when:

  1. Recognizing such behavior would harm us.
  2. Others have an agent do their dirty work for them.
  3. We grow comfortable over time with objectionable behavior.
  4. We value outcomes over processes.
Take the first point, which the researchers term motivated blindness, or "the tendency for people to overlook the unethical behavior of others when recognizing the unethical behavior would harm them."

Baseball powers-that-be overlooked the rapid physical development in aging superstar Barry Bonds because of the record-breaking results he was producing, the researchers say. The same forces are at work when auditors bend the rules to please their clients.

The paper concludes that most people value ethical behavior, but are sometimes swept up in the dark side by biases that influence their decisions. Organizational leaders should be responsible and accountable for understanding these processes and for making structural changes to reduce them.

Do you work in an ethical organization? Do you find it difficult to do the right thing even when doing so would harm your own interests?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.