Chapter 4: Ethical Communication in Organizations

4.2 Types of Ethical Lapses

Types of Ethical Lapses in Organizations[1][2]

Now that we have reviewed domains within which organizational ethics occur, we will review some examples of ethical issues within these domains. The following list identifies 11 types of ethical lapses, but is not meant to be an exhaustive list.

  1. Taking things that do not belong to you (stealing): Whether stealing a package of Post-It ® notes for home use or skimming millions of dollars out of a corporate account, the first major ethical hurdle many organizations have to face is theft. Sometimes the issue of theft is not clear cut. For example, is using company time for personal business theft? One area that has recently received attention is the use work computers for non-work/personal business, such as playing games online or chatting on Facebook.
  2. Saying things that are not true (lying): Gregory House, main character on the hit Fox television series House, frequently utters his basic mantra, “Everyone lies.” Whether someone is lying to get a job, keep a job, or advance in a job, people often use deception as a method for enhancing occupational options. Lying can also occur via an organization’s advertising campaign.
  3. False impressions (fraud and deceit): For the purposes of the list lying is differentiated from “false impressions.” False impressions occur when an individual or organization purposefully represents herself or himself as something that he or she is not. The authors note, “Are you responsible for correcting others’ false impressions such as not accepting unearned praise or not letting others take the blame for your mistakes? … Are you being deceitful when you dress for success or pretend to be successful so clients will have confidence in you?” (p. 256).
  4. Conflict of interest and influence buying (bribes, payoffs, & kickbacks): According to Desjardins (2009)[3] a conflict of interest occurs when an individual’s or organization’s interests interferes with professional judgments. Influence buying, on the other hand, is when an external party offers a bribe, payoff, or kickback to a decision maker in order to influence her or his decision.
  5. Hiding versus divulging information: Information is one of the most important commodities in any organization. Ultimately, who has information and how they chose to disseminate that information can have very positive or negative ramifications for an organization and its stakeholders. For example, would you sell a product to a client, allowing them to believe that the version you are selling them is the latest technology, when you know a newer, better version is being released the following week? When is divulging information about your corporation “whistleblowing” and when is it “industrial espionage?”
  6. Unfair advantage (cheating): The idea of unfair advantage occurs when a person or organization has more power to control the outcome of a situation. For example, if you are dying of a disease and a business has the only cure, they hold all the cards. In essence, they have the ability to charge anything they want for their “magical pill” because the patient has no other options. Is this practice fair and ethical? Is it fair when CEOs are paid multi-million dollar bonuses when thousands of employees are being laid off? In these situations, we see how power differentials can affect ethical decision making positions they hold.
  7. Personal decadence: In the summer of 2008, the major players in the United States’ auto industry flew on their private jets to Washington, DC to ask for a multi-billion dollar bailout from the U.S. Congress. When most people think of personal decadence, this type of over-the-top self-indulgent behavior comes to mind.
  8. Interpersonal abuse: While some actions within the organization, like personal decadence, impact the larger organization, other actions directed at coworkers have direct effects on personal performance. Cherrington and Cherrington (1992) note that “physical violence, sexual harassment, emotional abuse, abuse of one’s position, racism, and sexism” are examples of interpersonal abuse occurring in modern organizations (p. 256).
  9. Organizational abuse: While interpersonal abuse includes targeted action from one member of an organization toward another member of the organization, organizational abuse stems from the organization toward the organizational members. For example, “inequity in compensation, performance appraisals that destroy self-esteem, transfers or time pressures that destroy family life, terminating people through no fault of their own, encouraging loyalty and not rewarding it, and creating the myth that the organization will benevolently protect or direct an employee’s career”[4] are examples of how organizations abuse employees.
  10. Rule violations: Every person within an organization is governed by a list of rules. Some of these rules come in the form of laws set down from the judicial or legislative system. Other rules are created for specific organizational settings and are handed down in the form of an employee manual. Are there ever legitimate reasons to break these rules? Are some rules more important than other rules? When the rules in one set of documents (workplace policies) contradicts the rules in another set of documents (religious tenants), which rules should be followed?
  11. Accessory to unethical acts: An accessory to an unethical act is an individual who knows that an ethical violation has occurred by another individual. This knowledge of ethical violation could come either in the form of witnessing the ethical violation or somehow helping the individual commit the ethical violation. Ultimately, individuals who find themselves in the accessory position are faced with the ethical dilemma of whether or not to report the ethical violation.
  12. Moral balance (ethical dilemmas): The idea of “moral balance” stems from a philosophical debate about individuals who are faced with the possibility that a good outcome of her or his behavior or decisions will lead to a secondary outcome that is bad. For example, an issue of moral balance is at stake when an organization wants to produce a new product that will save hundreds of thousands of lives (primary outcome), but will destroy the fragile ecosystem of a village and make it uninhabitable for the indigenous people who live there (secondary outcome). An inverse moral dilemma could also exist: if the company does not produce the product, the fragile ecosystem of the village will be saved (primary outcome) but hundreds of thousands of lives will not be saved by the product (secondary outcome). How do you decide which option is ethical? Unfortunately, these types of ethical decisions are often the most complicated to make.

  1. Cherrington, J. O., & Cherrington, D. J. (1992). A menu of moral issues: One week in the life of the Wall Street Journal. Journal of Business Ethics, 11, 255–265.
  2. The following statics are derived from the annual Ethics & Workplace Survey conducted by Deloitte (2006Deloitte. (2006). Business ethics and compliance in the Sarbanes-Oxley era: A survey by Deloitte and Corporate Board Member magazine.  (2007). Leadership counts: Deloitte & Touche USA 2007 Ethics & Workplace survey results. (2008). Transparency matters: Deloitte LLP 2008 Ethics & Workplace Survey results. (2009). Social networking and reputational risk in the workplace: Deloitte LLP 2009 Ethics & Workplace Survey results. (2010). Trust in the workplace: Deloitte LLP 2010 Ethics & Workplace Survey results.
  3. Desjardins, J. (2009). An introduction to business ethics (3rd ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.,
  4. Cherrington & D. J. Cherrington, 1992, p. 256–257). 

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Organizational Communication by Whatcom Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.