Are the actions of people in the workplace a consequence of individual or organisational characteristics? What would promote ethical behaviour at work?
Unethical decision-making and behaviour within organisations has received increasing attention over the past ten years (McCabe et al 2006). Some of the more recent examples of questionable business ethics include Arthur Anderson, Enron and Merrill Lynch. But being ethical is not simple, there are many factors and contextual pressures that impact the decision-making process (Trevino & Brown 2004).
So what are the key influences on decision-making and actions in the workplace? There are two schools of thought. One is that the actions of people are a consequence of individual characteristics. This theory suggests that an individual’s influences such as values, personality and identity shape ethical behaviour. On the other hand, the second theory proposes that actions are the result of the organisational context in which one operates. For example, the ethical climate, organisational culture and leadership model.
This paper will analyse the individual and organisational characteristics which impact ethical and unethical behaviour in the workplace in an effort to prove that it is indeed both types of characteristics that influence an individual’s decision-making process and ability to act. It will also consider how organisations can promote ethical behaviour in the workplace.
Personality is defined as ‘traits that denote some uniqueness to individual life and can account for differences in behaviour across time and situations’ (McFerran et al 2010, p38). Personality is therefore an important factor to consider when identifying the causes for a person’s attitude and behaviour in the workplace.
Brown & Trevino (2006) describe the Five Factor model which categorises personality traits into five dimensions: agreeableness, openness, extraversion, conscientiousness and neuroticism. These behaviours often link directly to actions in the workplace. For example, people high in conscientiousness have been found to be less likely to engage in dishonesty. People high in agreeableness are unwilling to justify workplace indiscretions or harming a colleague. These findings have led researchers to describe individuals who are high in both of these areas as possessing ‘trait morality’ (McFerran et al 2010). People in this category will be particularly ethical and less likely to engage in unethical activities.
On the other hand, those with the Machiavellianism personality trait will be motivated to manipulate others to accomplish their own goals (Brown & Trevino 2006). Fang (2006) describes Machiavellians as pragmatic, egoistic and emotionally isolated. Machiavellian individuals may also be more likely to use relationships opportunistically and deceive others for personal gain (Kish-Gephart et al 2010). It can therefore be said that this personality trait can lead to unethical actions in the workplace.
Demographical variables should not be discounted when considering the individual characteristics that impact ethical behaviour. Numerous studies have confirmed the positive link between ethicality and both religiosity and gender. For example, Choe & Lau (2010) claim that religiosity is expected to influence an individual’s ethical beliefs in a positive way because it is seen to be a key personal characteristic. Miesing & Preble (1985) also note that individuals with a higher level of religiosity are more ethical than males with minimal religious conviction. This means that people with a high regard for religion are expected to be more ethical.
Historically, females have also shown more concern with ethical issues when compared to males (Beltramini et al 1984; Kish-Gephart et al 2010). McCabe et al (2006) notes that men are more willing than women to behave unethically and women will be more