Difficult decisions, Leadership

The deep roots of preventable deaths

If you feel that you are employed or collaborating with an organization where unethical practices are the norm, know that you are not alone. However, productive thinking about ethics involves realistic thinking about the concept of humanity. The Global Business Ethics Survey® (GBES®) – the global research on organizational ethics, is a rigorous longitudinal study of global ethical trends. It measures real ethical practices in 42 countries and 5 regions, making it the largest study in the field. GBES provides a deep and clear understanding of work integrity, ethical standards, and compliance processes and practices in public, private, for-profit, and non-profit organizations worldwide. It could give an ultimate understanding of the deep roots of some preventable deaths.

Major Causes of Lack of Ethics

Strong ethical cultures are rare in the workplace. According to GBES®, in 2020, only 14% of employees perceived a strong ethical culture in their organization, and the pandemic and energy crisis worsened things. Employee perceptions of the ethical actions of top managers, middle managers, and colleagues are considered a relevant indicator of organizational culture.

Group and organizational ethical behavior is influenced by a multitude of factors and is based on dozens of individual decisions made daily. GBES® monitors four major factors:

  1. Pressure perceived by employees to compromise ethical standards: about 30% of employees feel pressured to compromise ethical standards. The percentage has doubled since 2017.
  2. Over 50% of employees observe unethical behaviors at their workplace. The top three most frequent inappropriate behaviors come from leaders who believe they are omnipotent and the rules don’t apply to them because they are superior: favoritism (unfair treatment of others), management lying, and conflicts of interest.
  3. Despite the fear of retaliation, 8 out of 10 employees report inappropriate behaviors they observe.
  4. Over 60% of employees who reported observed unethical behaviors faced some form of retaliation.

What Influences Daily Ethical Decisions?

It has been proven that in the past 20 years, the level of ethical and, implicitly, unethical practice has remained relatively constant, despite organizations’ efforts to establish codes of conduct and compliance processes. Moreover, it seems that ethics training is not as effective as hoped. What can influence ethical decisions and actions, considering the catastrophic costs of unethical practices? Preventable deaths due to fires, reckless drivers, earthquakes, or professionals lacking integrity appear more frequently, along with corruption scandals. What are the hidden roots of misery?

It seems that individual and daily ethical decision-making processes are influenced by : the behavior of superiors, peer behavior, and individual locus of control. (Samat, Nusrah & amir ishak, Noormala & Nasurdin, Aizzat.2014). Leaders’ integrity as a social model for others appears to be a key element that influences professionals’ behavior. Codes of conduct and compliance become null when leaders at all levels say one thing and do another. Peer behavior is also a factor that can support or discourage difficult ethical decisions.

Dishonesty Doesn’t Affect Everyone Equally

Managers with an external locus of control (who blame circumstances for questionable decisions) are more inclined to unethical behaviors than managers with an internal locus of control (who make decisions based on intrinsic, possibly universal moral values). There are studied correlations between certain personality dimensions and ethical behavior:

Big Five and Ethical Behavior One of the most well-referenced models in personality psychology is the Big Five Personality Traits – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Among these, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness have shown notable links to ethical behavior.

  • Conscientiousness: Individuals with a high level of conscientiousness are generally organized, reliable, and disciplined. A study by Kish-Gephart, Harrison, and Treviño (2010) found that those who scored high in conscientiousness were less likely to engage in unethical behaviors.
  • Agreeableness: Agreeable people tend to be compassionate and cooperative. Research indicates that they may be less likely to engage in unethical practices due to their concern for others (Aquino & Reed, 2002).

Moral Reasoning and Personality Kohlberg’s stages of moral development present different levels of moral reasoning. Rest’s Defining Issues Test (DIT), which evaluates moral reasoning, has been correlated with personality. Individuals displaying post-conventional moral reasoning – where decisions are based on universal principles – often show higher scores in Openness and Agreeableness (Thoma, 1986).

The Dark Triad and Unethical Behavior Personality research has also focused on maladaptive traits. The Dark Triad – Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Psychopathy – is associated with manipulative and antisocial behaviors. Several studies, like the one by Jonason and Webster (2010), have found strong links between these traits and unethical behaviors in various settings.


  • Unethical decisions and practices happen daily in every organization, and in the long run, every seemingly minor compromise can have some hidden costs up to catastrophes.
  • People’s distress, up to moral exhaustion due to unethical demands or observing unethical behaviors, varies. Some personalities and characters are more inclined towards immediate individual goals and interests, status, or profit, ignoring the possible long-term adverse consequences of moral compromises.
  • The problem in organizations or societies with a reduced ethical culture is the lack of awareness of ethical indiscipline and, especially, its risks. And so on, practices perpetuate. A weak ethical culture can be exacerbated during recessions and crises. People may be forced to make even riskier decisions that they will regret later.
  • The world doesn’t work ethically or unethically; the world simply works.
  • The ETHYS executive coaching process is inspired by medical and management experience in the real health and medtech industry and is certified by ICF. It can help you become aware of the limits of ethical compromises that you are forced or willing to accept to minimize long-term professional risk. Write to office@ethys.ro for more information.



About Iulia Deac

Iulia Deac's Coaching-Leadership partnerships bring her clients clarity and a different perspective at crucial moments in their professional life. An experienced medical doctor in the global business of medicine and technology, Iulia is the professional you want to have by your side when things are tough. With great consideration, humor, and honesty, she will challenge you to think critically and strategically. Thus, it is possible to regain your realistic optimism moving towards your next career stage or next professional performance. Iulia is happily celebrating her 21st year of marriage, has a daughter, is jogging and loves alpine skiing.

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