What is Unethical Behavior

Unethical behavior

Theologians and philosophers since ancient times have been concerned with the question of how evil comes into the world and how it should be dealt with.

When asked what it is and how to deal with it, many fail. It is not only nave to conclude from what is useless to continue these efforts, but it is counterproductive.

We face frequent criminal behavior in economic life: theft, embezzlement or fraud, corruption, but also money laundering and competitive crime.

It is estimated that companies lose several billion euros per year (Marcus, 2000). Criminal behavior violates laws, contracts and regulations. And it is immoral.

There is also deviant and hostile behavior. You can gossip about coworkers, be late more often, or get work done, but that’s not unethical.

If someone is following the rule, what should be done? Even if annoyed: Is the employee not fulfilling his contract? Such behavior does not violate generally accepted, organizational, ethical norms.

Quite the contrary:

It cannot contradict organizational rules. But if the employee makes remarks on the customer, takes advantage of him without becoming a criminal, then it is unethical.

As a customer, no one would expect the seller to tell them the “truth” but rather to believe that they highlight the strengths of the product or service and hide the weaknesses.

Yet it is unethical to promise things that cannot be fulfilled or simply to deceive the customer.

It is clearly unethical to accept large gifts from customers, even if the bribery is not proven. Most would find this inappropriate, even if not illegal: “You” don’t do such a thing.

It violates widely accepted ethical standards – it is not ethical. Similarly the manager’s example allows his girlfriend to use the airline’s plane for private holiday trips.

Even though some things are in the gray area of general compliance with rules, customs and traditions, some unethical practices are also partially illegal.

Fraud and theft, for example, but also sabotage or misinformation in financial statements. People develop an idea of what are generally accepted moral norms.

Meta-analysis on Unethical Behavior in the Workplace:


For more than 30 years, psychological research has tried to figure out why people act unethically in the workplace.

More than 170 studies have been published, the data of which have now been compared and evaluated in large-scale meta-analyses.

What causes the practice of unethical behavior? Is it because of the characteristics of the person? Specific situations and situations in which people make decisions?

And what is the contribution of ethical environment and corporate culture to this? All three authors envisage a model according to which all three sets of factors influence an unethical decision:

Personal factors: There are people who are more prone to unethical behavior than others.

  • Situational factors: Various situations and perceived consequences affect how a person makes decisions in a morally relevant situation.
  • Organizational Factors: Every organization has a specific culture and a specific ethical environment. Many companies also have a code of conduct.


After careful scrutiny and selecting inappropriate documents — subjected a meta-analysis to 136 studies that gathered data from 43,914 participants.

The results they present in the famous Journal of Applied Psychology (1/10) are exceptionally clear.

Personal factors


The higher the level of cognitive moral development, the less likely the immoral behavior is. An idealistic person’s moral behavior is clearly seen to be above average, while a relativistic viewpoint is more likely to lead to immoral behavior.

Machiavellianism and the externalized belief of control that a person sees oneself as low as the blacksmith of one’s happiness indicates immoral behavior.

On the other hand, less ethical behavior can be expected from highly satisfied employees.

There is only a weak positive correlation with gender and age aspects: there is a slight bias towards males rather than females.

and younger than older people who behave immorally. There is no clear picture just when it comes to educational status. What can be said is that higher education is not a guarantee of ethical behavior.

Situational factors


The weight of the consequences of immoral behavior, if one feels “socially covered” by the surrounding environment, the probability with which the effect is expected.

Its proximity or temporal distance, the degree of concern for others and the effects it all works when ethical decisions are made in terms of refinement and awareness.

If one aspect of this set of factors is also increased in a person’s eye, that is, perceived as overweight, this increases sensitivity and reflection on self-responsibility, the researchers found, with extreme importance.

Organizational factors


A selfish moral environment clearly favors immoral behavior; However, this effect is very weak.

In a friendly and benevolent environment as well as in an environment characterized by rules and work instructions, however, the likelihood of unethical behavior is reduced.

This can be shown as a moderate correlation. Scientists clearly show a statistical relationship between ethically established corporate culture and ethical behavior.

However, the application of the code of conduct in the company has no deterrent value in itself.

The potential for unethical behavior in a company that applies a code of conduct is no less than a company without that code.

The situation is different, however, if you not only practice “window dressing” but actually comply with the code and punish employees for violations. Hence the chances of unethical behavior are greatly reduced.

The results of the Meta-Study


The study confirms many of the theoretical concepts discussed so far, particularly on the interaction between personality and situational factors, as well as the role of corporate culture.

But it also shows that the intention to commit immoral acts depends on a variety of factors.

And that this formation of intention does not always occur in a completely conscious way, but also “impulsively” influenced by situational factors.

In consideration of the three bundles of factors mentioned, the following can be obtained:

Personal Factors: There are clearly people who are more prone to unethical behavior than others. These are the people who keep their goals and benefits in mind.

You will not be able to filter with a simple checklist (age, gender, education). On the contrary, it makes more sense to use so-called integrity tests in personnel selection (see box).

They have long been among the selection procedures with the best predictive validity, although in Germany they are still confidential.


Situational factors:

If people experience ethical dilemmas, the situational aspect and the thought about the consequences of the decision play an important role.

High risk or harm to others deters potential offenders. Companies are therefore advised to increase the awareness of their employees on the consequences of ethical decisions.

Even for those who often present themselves as a dilemma. But it is also important to pay attention to the “automatic” behavior. Employees don’t always make decisions carefully.

By providing insight into these processes and proactive job design, some “opportunities” can be disabled.


Organizational Factors:

Organizations that maintain a more selfish environment need no longer wonder that they are more prone to unethical behavior.

On the other hand, an organizational environment, based on modeling the cooperation of all stakeholders (employees, customers, social environment) in a liberal way, will make ethical behavior more likely.

A clear communication of accepted and rejected values and behaviors contributes to this. If they are not “living”, it is not even enough to put in place systems of compliance with a code of conduct.

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