Hindsight is a complex thing when it comes to ethics. You may look back at something you’ve done and ask yourself: “what did I think I was doing?” Others may simply never see the ethical question hanging over what they were doing. In this toolkit, we explore what is called ethical fading.
What is Ethical Fading
Ethical fading can happen in situations that require frequent judgement calls. The situation may be adversarial and time constrained – the decision is needed now. In such circumstances, it can happen that we start to make decisions that we think fall within the scope of what is ethical, but which are in fact progressively straying into unethical territory.
Two factors can be at play here.
Firstly, we may start to disengage our values from a situation in which business interests are at stake, because we find it too uncomfortable to maintain a balance between the cognitive and emotional processes that underlie such decisions. In other words, it can seem easier to focus on financial numbers rather than on corporate values.
And secondly, after having made a less than ethical decision, we may resort to rationalising away that problem, by trying to make a bad decision look more like a good or ok one. What we’re trying to do here is reduce the conflict between our view of ourself as an ethical person and the unethical decision we’ve taken. Haven't we all at some point in our careers heard that most common of rationalisations: “well, everyone else is doing it.”
How Ethical Fading can Arise
For insurance people, working as they often do in an environment with many processes and protocols, taking one small ‘unethical step’ may seem of little consequence. It seems easy to justify because of the pressure of targets and the like. And all those processes and protocols can at times seem to almost give you permission to switch off the ethical, values side of your thinking.
This doesn’t just come from within your firm. Suppliers and business partners, keen to optimise performance, can sometimes create situations where ethical fading can take hold.
Should ethical fading become part of your firm or office culture, it can easily take over. Doing it once makes it easier to do it again, and again and again. And if she did it, then so can I.
Tackling Ethical Fading
If this should happen in your firm, then getting it back on a more ethical course takes time and effort. It’s no use getting a senior executive to give a stirring speech on how important ‘doing the right thing’ is. If everyone then returns to their desks and the same processes, they just won’t see how to do things differently. Your firm needs to show them how. It could go about this in five ways.
The first stage involves raising people’s awareness of the unethical nature of a particular behaviour. When they are in situations that could be problematic, employees can be reminded of the actual meaning of their behaviour. This could be done through training, which serves as a helpful background, but is not immediate. This immediacy could for example come through system prompts built around (and reiterating) clearly defined boundaries.
The firm could ensure that their employees clearly recognise and understand that such and such misconduct is wrong and will be penalised, especially when repeated. This could be made clear in team protocols, training, town hall meetings and declarations. Communicating cases of actual misconduct can be a rather stark route to take, with case studies professionally written and tailored to specific situations probably being more easily absorbed.
The ethical side of a decision becomes clearer if the person is able to slow down and take even a minute or two to consider the ramifications of what they’re doing. Training in reflective thinking helps equip them to do this.
And in slowing down, the person is then able to bring in wider perspectives, of other people who have an interest in the decision about to be made, and of a longer time frame. That helps frame the decision against the longer term reputation of the firm, or indeed of that person’s career.
A culture that respects and encourages people to ask questions in certain situations certainly helps. Researchers have found that even a single person asking a question about whether something is a good idea or not, can change the mood around that decision.
Training in ethical decision making also helps. And getting people to have a go at resolving ethical dilemmas designed around the type of situation at hand gives them practice in ‘doing the right thing’.
A good ethical risk assessment should identify where and when all this is best done. Part of that risk assessment should cover the pressure points and pressure times where ethical fading is likely to take hold. There are a variety of tools that can help reduce such pressure.
Ethical fading is one of a number of ethical culture themes that fall under the heading of behavioural ethics. Look out for other toolkits that explore other aspects of ethical culture / behavioural ethics.