Why 'Moral' People Act Unethically

Last Updated May 16, 2011 12:27 PM EDT

The recent news that Nevada Senator John Ensign was resigning to curtail an ethics investigation into an affair with an aide's wife brought to mind the many other scandals that have felled others who claimed the moral high ground. From the Reverend Jim Bakker, forced from his position by a sex scandal and later imprisoned for accounting fraud, to former House Appropriations committee chair Bob Livingston, also forced from office by a sex scandal.

It's not a coincidence that moralistic individuals often behave unethically. Social psychological research suggests a causal relationship between feeling moral and acting immorally, findings that have important implications for the difficult task of instilling moral behavior in business leaders.
Moral credentialing
The fundamental idea is often called moral credentialing. If someone has behaved morally or in some other way established a moral image, that frees the person to subsequently engage in less ethical behavior--sort of the moral equivalent of permitting yourself to eat chocolate cake after you exercised. For example, one study found that participants asked to write a story referencing their positive traits donated just one-fifth as much as those who had to write a story about their negative traits.
Another experiment in the same paper concluded that this effect occurred because of the impact of the story-writing on participants' self-concept--people who felt badly about themselves (having made negative traits salient) bolstered their self-image by being more generous, while those who already felt positively about themselves were free to be less generous. Other research demonstrated that when study participants' past behavior established their credentials as non-prejudiced individuals, they were more willing to express attitudes that showed prejudice.

Identifying and retraining likely offenders
If, as this research suggests, we get more moral behavior from people who have to demonstrate their positive qualities to others, managers can use this information in several ways. First, we need to be most wary of those who have the most leeway to behave unethically because of their positive image and frequent statements asserting moral positions--as it is precisely these people who will feel they have the moral license to do immoral things. Human resource consultant Robert Gandossy's book, Bad Business, described a massive computer leasing fraud perpetrated by some Orthodox Jews. As in the more recent tale of Bernard Madoff or the ethics scandals of Newt Gingrich or GOP congressman Christopher Lee, the implicit question is: how can ostensibly religious people engage in unethical behavior? The answer is that it is precisely their moral image that frees them from worrying about and therefore adhering to moral standards.
Second, paradoxically, providing people with lots of ethics training can actually backfire--as going through the training may make them overconfident about their own decision making, as well as feel that having learned ethics, they now have the right to, at least occasionally, violate what they have learned.
Third, people who, having done something wrong, then get a second or third chance--something the clothing retailer The Men's Wearhouse typically does with its wardrobe consultants who mess up--have a greater chance, if they decide to reform, of being scrupulously honest in the future. That's because they have the most to demonstrate, both to themselves and others, about how moral they now are.
The most fundamental lesson, however, is this: to encourage the best behavior on your team, it is important to not bestow excessive praise or positive regard, so they feel as if they must continually demonstrate their moral credentials. It is when people feel they have nothing left to prove that they don't.

  • Jeffrey Pfeffer

    Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he has taught since 1979. Pfeffer has authored or co-authored 13 books on topics including power, managing people, and evidence-based management. He has lectured in 34 countries and has been a visiting professor at London Business School, Harvard Business School, Singapore Management University, and IESE in Barcelona. Pfeffer has served on the board of directors of several human-capital software companies, as well as other public and nonprofit boards.