What leads professionals to comprise on their ethics?

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Tuesday, 11 February, 2020 - 12:30
Industry news
National News

There are a number of common rationalisations which lead individuals to compromise their ethics in the business world, and this has important implications for OHS professionals and potential safety outcomes within organisations.

Mary Gentile, an international expert on ethics in business and Professor of Practice at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, said the most common reasons behind compromising ethical positions include:

  • “It’s standard operating procedure; it’s just the way it’s done in this industry or in this part of the world or in this organisation.”
  • “It’s not material; it’s not a big deal.”
  • “It’s not MY responsibility, even if it is wrong; it’s above my pay-grade.”
  • “It may be wrong but I don’t want to be disloyal to my colleagues, my bosses, my clients/customers, my organisation.”


Recent research suggests that individuals are wired to react emotionally, often almost automatically, to values conflicts – and then to rationalise after the fact why their actions were the right thing to do or the only thing they could do, said Gentile.

“Therefore, simply identifying the behavioral drivers head-on is not sufficient,” said Gentile, who was speaking ahead of the AIHS National Conference at #SAFETYSCAPE which will be held from May 27-28 this year.

“We need to literally build a sort of ‘moral muscle memory’ – a default to informed values-driven voice and action – through pre-scripting, rehearsal, and peer coaching.”

Gentile also observed that there are as many ethical issues for business professionals as there are for individuals in their everyday lives.

“That is, the contexts and details may differ but the underlying pressures and temptations and fears are similar,” she said:

  • “We want to fit in, to feel part of the team, and therefore to progress in our careers, so it is difficult to disagree with our bosses or with our peers when they appear to be in agreement about a questionable course of action.
  • “We don’t want to appear to be disloyal to colleagues whom we otherwise like and respect.
  • “We want our team and/or our organisations to thrive.
  • “We often feel as if ethical breaches are the only way to be competitive.
  • “We may be embarrassed or feel vulnerable to admit mistakes or problems.”


Gentile, who developed a “Giving Voice To Values” approach to values-driven leadership development, said this starts from the premise that most of us already want to act on our values, but that we also want to feel that we have a reasonable chance of doing so effectively and successfully.

“This pedagogy and curriculum are about raising those odds,” she said.

“Rather than a focus on ethical analysis, the Giving Voice to Values curriculum focuses on ethical implementation and asks the question: “What if I were going to act on my values? What would I say and do? How could I be most effective?”

She explained that the key is helping individuals to realise that they have more choices than they often suspect, and to build their confidence, comfort and competence at voicing and enacting their values-driven positions.

“It is not about merely reporting or accusing and it is not about becoming some different person – more aggressive or more of a risk-taker – than we may already think we are,” she said.

“It is rather about identifying our own individual strengths – preferred communication styles, risk profile, sense of purpose, etc. – and then framing values and ethical challenges in ways that play to those strengths.

“It is about identifying the sorts of values conflicts we will encounter in our professions – in the OHS context, for example – and then rehearsing our responses with our peers.

“It is about searching for positive examples to learn from. It is about building the “moral muscle memory” and making this conversation a normal and regular part of our organisational culture. It is about believing we have more choices.”


Gentile will be keynote speaker at the AIHS National Conference at #SAFETYSCAPE which will be held from May 27-28 2020. Over the coming weeks the AIHS will also be running launches of the new ethics chapter in the OHS Body of Knowledge. For the full interview with Gentile and feature on ethics and OHS Professionals, read the upcoming March 2020 issue of OHS Professional magazine.