Causes of Unethical Behavior Within the Workplace

Ethical Behavior is defined as : Acting in ways consistent with what society and individuals typically think are good values and involves demonstrating respect for key moral principles that include honesty, fairness, equality, dignity, diversity and individual rights. According to a survey done by Washington D.C. based Ethics Resource Center (ERC), roughly 120 million people walk into a workplace and half of those workers personally witness some form of ethical misconduct. When discussing business ethics, many people like to focus on only the good vs the bad, but forget to look at the basic causes of unethical behavior within the workplace and what draws employees to commit them.

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Robert Hoyk, PhD says the root causes of unethical behavior lies in psychological traps that everyone falls prey to. Hoyk says that within any workplace there are psychological traps which are similar to that of fish traps. Fish traps are wired cages in which the entrance shaped like a funnel is designed to funnel the fish to swim into the trap in the same way an organization can drive an employee to move in a ethical or unethical direction. These traps can have a way of distorting perceptions of what is ethical and unethical and can often lead people to believe that their behavior is perfectly fine and they are not in the wrong. Hoyk states that empathy is considered to be the cornerstone of good ethics but in the wrong situation can actually overpower the sense of fairness and drive unethical behavior. There are three main traps that are most common within the workplace primary traps, personality traps, and defensive traps.

Primary traps are focused on obedience to authority, at a very young age people are taught to obey what their parents say, this is the base of your ethics the very beginning. Throughout time people are trained to respect authority and to do as they are ordered, when a supervisor instructs an employee to do something they usually comply without any question. The employee does not consider if the act may or may not be ethical. Leadership within the workplace plays a major role with ethics, if an employee sees unethical behavior from a supervisor, they are more likely to inherit that same unethical behavior for they see it as the norm. An employee within a restaurant was questioned on if he had seen any unethical behavior from his supervisor, he answered that within his first few months, he had noticed his general manager treating a certain server in a manner that was not normal. Later the employee found out that the general manager had been having an affair with the server, and had in fact been giving her special treatment, the employee was then question on why he had not mentioned anything to a higher up manager. The employee responded with the fact that he was still new, he for one feared for the security of his job had he came after the general manager and for two he assumed it was normal.

This also leads to personality traps, which are personal traits that can later make others act the same way, it is said that we are all vulnerable to situational influences all the time Phil Zimbardo PhD words this nicely by saying Decades of evidence shows us that SITUATIONS can persuade event the most ethical and compassionate people to betray their own values. This specific situation can be described as fear of reprisal, which according to Jim Molis is one of the causes of unethical behavior within the workplace. Molis continues to describe another cause as impact of peer influence, which plays into defensive traps, an example of a defensive trap would be, an manager at an employee at an establishment was recently caught stealing money from one of the cash drawers, when questioned as to why they did it, they replayed with well, two of the other managers do it, so I figured why not me, they are going to do it anyways. This is also described as the False Consensus Effect in which someone appeases their guilt by stating that others do it as well. These are just the three most common and major psychological traps that are seen in workplaces, but they are not the only ones.

Just as there are psychological traps within the workplace, misusing company time, abusive behavior, employee theft, lying to employees are the top 4 most common unethical behavior seen throughout the workplace. When looked at closely the reader can conclude that unethical behavior stems from a majority of factors, such as personal ethics, the way someone is raised can define their ethics seeing as it is the foundation of ethics, organizational culture, as in the organization for which someone works, if an employee goes into a company that has no ethical code or is a toxic environment said employee is more likely to pick up on those traits. But most of all what is probably the leading factor in unethical behavior would have to be leadership, it all starts at the top, if a company has leaders who either have no ethics or choose to ignore the ethics (in turn being unethical) the company has no chance in surviving ethically. Leaders are there to lead, to establish the organizational culture, they set the example for others to lead by, far to often if someone is to examine and break down a company suffering from unethical behavior they will find that the leaders are either not enforcing the ethics are simply not paying attention to them. When a manager of a restaurant was interviewed and questioned on his thoughts as to why some managers act unethically, he responded with how, far too often it is all but to easy to make excuses for the behavior, they use a business calculus and forget about the ethical dimension when making decisions, they get lost in the number or results to even consider the ethics of it, not only that but often when there is more then one leader and there is a leadership team, it is almost an unspoken bond that they each have each other’s back, to show a strong bond for the other employee to see, so that no one employee can play one another and they project a strong union pack, that if one says one thing the other will agree and back them up. With this type of relationship it makes it even more dangerous for unethical behavior to go uncheck, for if a manager is always backing up another manager, who is to intervene and cut the cycle of poor ethical behavior.

Works Cited

  1. Achwartz, A. (2015). [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Jan. 2015].
  2. (2018). Good one to know!. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].
  3. Molis, J. (2018). What Are the Causes of Unethical Behavior in the Workplace?. [online] Bizfluent. Available at: [Accessed 25 Oct. 2018].
  4. Robert Hoyk, P. and Paul Hersey, E. (2018). The Root Causes of Unethical Behavior. [online] Graziadio Business Review | Graziadio School of Business and Management | Pepperdine University. Available at: [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].
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Causes Of Unethical Behavior Within The Workplace. (2019, Jul 11). Retrieved September 27, 2022 , from

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