Good Intentions, Bad Effects

By Darnell Lattal

Throughout the past several years, ethics has made its way into business headlines, more often than not for bad rather than good. What people may be surprised to know though is that to get an organization to behave in ethical ways, it takes more than good people seeking to do good. It takes more than rules of conduct.  Ethical behavior is what is shaped day in and day out by unintended consequences that occur as work is done. To "be ethical" requires a very deliberate focus on the impact, not the intention, of actions. It is also a clear-eyed review of how behavior got going to begin with and the unethical effects on the organization.  It requires looking ahead at impact, not what has happened but what could happen and evaluating the degree of harm or good such impact could have. There are things that each of us can do to contribute to a stronger ethical workplace. The best way to protect you and your organization is to understand how consequences increase or decrease the likely occurrence of certain kinds of behavior now and in the future. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Talk openly. Make ethics a part of your workplace culture by talking openly and often about it.  When you provide examples and take the time to communicate its importance, individuals will have a stronger understanding of how to avoid slippery slopes.
  2. Build ethics into hiring and training. Include ethics as part of your selection interview. Examine a person’s responses to ethical dilemmas and identify specific actions to take. Ask about times when they did something wrong and how they decided what to do. Look at a candidate’s ability to balance among conflicting values and how the individual might apply his/her judgment to “messy customer situations” or with coworkers. In training, have your employees define terms such as treating others with respect and how they demonstrate that in their behavior. Present case studies that require discriminations among choices and discuss the implications. Have individuals bring real-life ethical dilemmas to the team for discussion and resolution.
  3. Focus on consequences. Attach consequences to desired behavior and measure its occurrence. Extreme behaviors lead to immediate termination, but most actions are not stuff of moral outrage. Remember that ethical discrimination is shaped, reinforced, maintained and changed by the contingencies that surround and support individual actions. Make your expectations clear and then follow up.
  4. Define criteria. Establish a set of criteria to evaluate your own actions and share those with others.
  5. Support others. Encourage, model and help others establish a method to discuss actions and increase alertness to the ethical issues in everyday decisions.
  6. Monitor and enforce ethical behavior. Assure that structure and resources exist to monitor and enforce commitment to an ethical climate. Regular coaching and feedback, training sessions to increase skills, customer and employee feedback, structures, systems and processes that allow for the orderly flow of work are all important in reinforcing ethical behavior.

Be alert to what the longer term effects of consequences are for individuals and for the culture of an organization. The ethical traps, unintended consequences, are easy to fall into and none of us are immune from the fall.


"A Good Day's Work" book by Dr. Darnell Lattal and Dr. Ralph Clark

The following course meets the requirements for 3.5 Type 2 BACB® CE: Ethical Decision Making



Posted by Darnell Lattal, Ph.D.

For more than 30 years, Darnell has been dedicated to supporting clients in areas such as strategy implementation, behavioral systems redesign, and leadership development.  Her expertise lies in coaching individuals and organizations towards effective behavior change.