May 18, 2022 5 min read

Checking Ethical Culture – Dealing with Rationalisations

We sometimes hear colleagues making excuses for the decision they want to take. They try to dismiss the ethical side of the decision, preferring instead to emphasise how everyone else is doing it, or that no one will be worse off. These are called rationalisations and they need to be challenged.

Photo by AbsolutVision / Unsplash

What are Rationalisations?

A lot of ethical decision making involves us using our knowledge and skills to respond to the ethical dimension of the decision we’re considering. This is not however the only way in which we experience the ethical side of decision making. We can turn that perspective round and consider what we should do when we see someone else grappling with the ethics of a decision they’re about to make. The truth of the matter is, that we’re just as likely to be on the outside of ethical decision making looking in, as we are to be on the inside of such a situation ourselves.

You may be tempted to think that the ethics of someone else’s decision is their concern, that you shouldn’t really become involved. And to a degree, that’s understandable, but at the same time, if you’re working in an insurance firm, then the reputation of that firm, the trust that clients have in it, is a joint venture involving all the people working there. So there will be occasions when you use the knowledge and skills you’ve gained, to engage with colleagues to help them make better decisions.

So, for example, you may hear a colleague making excuses for not addressing the obvious ethical questions associated with a particular decision. Those  excuses are attempts to justify their bad decision. When you hear such excuses, you should be prepared to respond to your colleague, asking them to explain themselves, asking them to think again, perhaps even challenging them about how good a decision that really is.

These excuses are referred to as ‘rationalisations’. We’re going to look at six such rationalisations and suggest ways in which you could respond, perhaps challenge, a colleague using them.

Everyone Else is Doing It

The most common excuse you hear being used to dismiss the ethical side of a decision is “everyone else is doing it.” What the person is seeking to do is to justify their actions by comparing them with the actions of others.

Warren Buffett, a leading investor and insurance chief executive, has described those words as the five most dangerous words in business, so if you hear them, they really should be taken seriously.

How might you respond to them? I would suggest responding on two levels. Firstly, challenge the idea that what they’re suggesting is common practice and therefore in some way acceptable. So for example, you could say “No, everyone is not doing it that way. Lots of people deal with it properly. And just because some people have got it wrong before, doesn’t mean that we have to get it wrong as well.”

Secondly, position your response around a more positive future. For example, you could say something along the lines of “We should aim to be amongst the best in our sector, and that sort of approach isn’t going to get us there.”

If I didn’t, someone else would

Another rationalisation you might hear in the same breath as ‘everyone else is doing it’ is this: ‘if I didn’t do it, someone else would in my place’. What the person is trying to do is divert attention away from their one, specific situation, to a notional, generalised idea of how everyone else is said to behave. And that can also be challenged on two levels.

First of all, call out the notion that everyone else would act in the same way as they’re suggesting. You could say something along the lines of… “That’s not the case – I wouldn’t handle it like that. And there are plenty of others like me in the firm.”

Secondly, challenge the notion that what he is suggesting is something the firm would be happy with. So you could say “Try explaining that to the chief executive – I doubt he would be happy to do it your way.”

The Denial of Loss

A further rationalisation you may come across is a colleague questioning whether anyone would really be worse off if the ethical side of the decision was just ignored. This is pretty much akin to saying that if the colleague decides not to see a problem, then it doesn’t exist. The obvious way to call out this sort of excuse is of course to point out that “doing business with only one eye open is hardly a recipe for success”.

And you could follow that up with an appeal for everyone to think in a more customer centric way. It is after all what the insurance sector sees as central to its success. Listening to the ‘customer voice’ is the best way of finding out what the implications of a decision might be.

The Appeal to Other Loyalties

Rationalising excuses often involves pushing responsibility for a bad decision onto someone else and this is exemplified by the ‘appeal to other loyalties.’ This refers to excuses such as “the company needs this from me”. In other words, I have to ignore the ethical implications of this decision because it’s good for the company.

The best response to this is to challenge the way in which they are subverting the company’s interests for those of their own. Your firm will indeed want to make a good profit, but more importantly, it needs to retain the trust of its clients. Risking a firm’s reputation, for short term gains, is hardly a recipe for business success.

The Claim to Entitlement

A further rationalisation involves people seeking to justify a bad decision by voicing a ‘sense of entitlement’. So for example, they’ll say “I’ve worked hard on this and I deserve to benefit from it.”

Here, they’re mixing up their entitlement to be recognised for their hard work, with the notion that this then justifies all sorts of ethically questionable decisions. In response, you can acknowledge and praise their hard work, and suggest they don’t waste it by making a bad decision. And you could also respond with a well-known quote about trust – the one about trust taking years to earn, but minutes to lose.

The Denial of Responsibility

Some people may seek to deny responsibility for the decision they’ve just taken, by saying things like “I had no choice. There was no other option.”

Such situations often involve what is called a ‘false dilemma’. These arise when the options being weighed up are incomplete. Someone might only ‘see’ one way forward, while everyone else sees more than that.

So what causes some employees to think this way? Clearly it could be a deliberate tactic to gain an advantage. They recognise an opportunity and go for it, not bothering to ‘see’ any other option, nor to weigh up the consequences. So their claim to have no other option may sound plausible in their ears, but not in anyone else’s.

At the same time, the situation may not be as simple as this, for two reasons. Firstly, they may be an employee working in isolation, but making decisions that have wider impacts. And secondly, they may have been under pressure to the extent that no other option seemed viable, seemed permissible. If someone is in either such situation, they need better support, to help bring out more options in what may be difficult situations.

Behavioural Ethics

Rationalisations are 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.

Duncan Minty
Duncan Minty
Duncan has been researching and writing about ethics in insurance for over 20 years. As a Chartered Insurance Practitioner, he combines market knowledge with a strong and independent radar on ethics.
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