Bad Behavior: Personal Choice or Unintended Outcome?

Sept. 19, 2014

What is the source of bad behavior? I believe the answer lies in the dialogue created at places such as the University of Arizona's Center for Leadership Ethics at the Eller College of Management.

The UA center is engaged in education involving ethical practices at both the high school and college levels and solving ethical behavior issues, which have been trending in the wrong direction. The center also actively discusses unethical behavior and the positive impact that addressing these behaviors will have on our society. In short, the center is committed to changing a current societal shortcoming by educating early and setting the right examples.

Regardless of whether unethical behavior is a choice or an unintended consequence, its existence generally harms not only innocent people but also industries, schools and governments. Unethical behavior has an impact on the integrity of systems and industries. We don't need to look any further than the sub-prime mortgage crisis, Ponzi investment schemes, falsified corporate financial reporting and government scandals to see the evidence of this.

So where does my interest in ethics come from? I have chosen a profession that is highly regulated, or perhaps even overregulated.

I say this with a complete understanding that the primary argument for high regulation is ethics-based. But what is ethical behavior?

There was a time when ethical behavior simply meant that you treated people well, did not steal, did not lie and did not cheat. You simply practiced professionalism and worked diligently. If you did these things, you performed your job in an "ethical" manner. Today, the industry has shifted into a hypervigilant regulation of lawyers and their law firms, one that stretches beyond the above-described ethics code.

What has changed?

Studies show that unethical behavior is often accepted and practiced by both high school and college students in the form of cheating, plagiarism and even taking medications to obtain a testing advantage. Some would argue that this happens because schools and parents have failed to give students a strong, clear message that these behaviors are wrong and will not be tolerated. But maybe this conclusion is too simplistic.

In an April 20, 2011, op-ed piece published in The New York Times, "Stumbling Into Bad Behavior," authors Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel state that unethical conduct occurs because "people are unconsciously fooling themselves. They overlook transgressions — bending a rule to help a colleague, overlooking information that might damage the reputation of a client — because it is in their interest to do so." Bazerman and Tenbrunsel argue that when people are busy at work and life, we fail to even notice that a decision has an ethical component, which allows us to "behave unethically while maintaining a positive self-image." I also believe that this failure to consciously evaluate decisions with the ethical component in mind allows normally ethical people to accept the unethical behaviors of others.

With a prevalently tolerant attitude toward unethical behaviors, it's easy to see its impact on adults in their professional work environments: professional athletes attempting to cheat by using performance enhancing drugs; a job applicant lying on an application; or a company CEO who falsifies financial statements to satisfy Wall Street expectations.

So will increasing the punishment for unethical behavior at a young age change a student's perspective before entering the workforce? I can certainly think of modern-day examples where this is not the case. State bar associations disbar lawyers every year for acting unethically, and this isn't enough of a deterrent to change behavior. In fact, in the same op-ed piece referenced above, Bazerman and Tenbrunsel state that fines and penalties can actually increase the undesirable behaviors they are designed to discourage: "With no penalty, the situation was construed as an ethical dilemma; the penalty caused individuals to view the decision as a financial one."

So if the threat of punishment or a clear negative outcome isn't enough to change behavior, what will? Quite simply, programs such as the UA's Center for Leadership Ethics at Eller.

Doug Zanes is the owner and responsible attorney for Zanes Law, a personal injury law firm established in Arizona in 2003. Zanes, who has invested more than 17 years practicing law, is a newly appointed member of the advisory board member at the University of Arizona Eller College of Management's Center for Leadership Ethics. With a three-pronged focus on research, education and outreach, the center works to advance improvements in organizational ethics. The Center for Leadership Ethics consists of scholars with diverse interests pertaining to leadership ethics who are committed to improving the ethical culture of organizations.