What does professionalism mean to you? Often, people who identify as a professional think of themselves not only as knowledgeable in their discipline, but also rational, objective and serving a higher purpose (e.g., the client’s needs). These are laudable goals, but new research shows that these characteristics could actually lead to people making self-interested, and ultimately unethical or damaging, decisions.
In a paper on Professionalism and Moral Behavior, Maryam Kouchaki of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, tests the hypothesis that an emphasis on one’s professional identity has a greater likelihood of an individual engaging in unethical behavior. This is an important inquiry in light of ethical failures in companies where lawyers and accountants often act as “gatekeepers” on ethics and compliance issues vis a vis corporate practices. Based on evidence from her lab studies and employee surveys, Kouchaki concludes that priming professionalism may actually lead to increased misbehavior.
Ms. Chen comes well prepared from a background in both corporate compliance and prosecution, which she will likely lean heavily upon when tackling the difficult task of helping prosecutors recognize whether an incident is symptomatic of an unethical corporate culture or the result of a rogue employee. This is the distinction that has challenged social psychologists for decades: is it the individual or the system that is to blame?
Ethical Systems praises this initiative as a major step towards not only making behavioral science more widespread but also in advancing the incorporation of ethical system design in business. When businesses adopt these systems, research shows their employees are happier, more productive and, as a result, the business is more profitable.
One challenge identified in academic literature on behavioral ethics and business is finding practical applications for the lessons learned from test environments. All of us at Ethical Systems, including our collaborators and partners, are working on how to best leverage these findings.
This challenge is succinctly presented by Donald C. Langevoort of Georgetown University in a recent article about behavioral ethics and behavioral compliance. As he points out, the lessons from behavioral ethics are intuitive and while the outcomes aren’t necessarily predictable, they are often unsurprising. It makes sense, for example, that ‘just in time’ communications improve ethical decision-making because the reminder of the moral fallout of one’s choices become prominent. In another example, Langevoort describes the concept of ethical blind spots– as popularized by two ES collaborators, Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel– distorting good judgment and sensible decision making.