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Ethical fading

This has been in the news recently, in part because it was featured in a book that was published this year (2011), Blind Spots, by Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel and because it has proved a useful term when discussing the phone-hacking accusations concerning News International.

Sometimes, unethical behaviour in business — fiddling expenses, overcharging, hiding unwelcome facts (say about an unsafe product), bribery or corruption, putting workers at risk through cutting corners, or paying police for tip-offs and hacking people’s phones — becomes accepted as part of the culture of an organisation. This may be because it’s unchecked by management, sometimes because it seems to be the only way to get the job done, sometimes because it’s known that telling a dictatorial boss about a problem is a good way to get fired. Ethical fading refers to an erosion of the ethical standards of a business in which employees become used to engaging in or condoning such behaviour.

The term is clearly new to most commentators, but it was created in the article Ethical Fading, the Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior, by Ann Tenbrunsel and David Messick, which appeared in Social Justice Research in 2004.

When we are busy focused on common organizational goals, like quarterly earnings or sales quotas, the ethical implications of important decisions can fade from our minds. Through this ethical fading, we end up engaging in or condoning behavior that we would condemn if we were consciously aware of it.

New York Times, 20 Apr. 2011.

The academics describe a process of “ethical fading” in businesses where maximising returns is encouraged over fairness to fellow employees and customers. The result is that right and wrong go out of the window. Read about the culture at the News of the World and “ethical fading” certainly comes to mind.

Guardian, 18 Jul. 2011.

Page created 13 Aug. 2011

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Last modified: 13 August 2011.