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Corporate wrongdoing, political scandals, abuse and more are featured regularly and prominently in news reports.  Despite the many publications on ethics research there is still much to be done to acquire a body of knowledge that will impact real-world behaviour.  Because most of us are influenced by those around us when we make moral judgements (Kohlberg, 1976) I believe it would be helpful to understand the factors that influence our impressions of others’ responses to ethical dilemmas.

Research by Wayne H. Decker and Thomas J. Calo reveal that impressions of an unethical executive and of a whistleblower are influenced by the same variables but in opposite directions.

The purpose of my blog is to explore those variables in order to create awareness to shift change in training outcomes.

The way an observer frames a decision is one factor that has been shown to affect their judgements of unethical actors.  Unethical actions, in some instances, not all, are judged less harshly if the intention is to avoid a loss rather than if the purpose is to achieve a gain (Decker, 1994b; Reeder and Spores, 1983). This is consistent with Kahneman and Tversky’s (1984) prospect theory which suggests that individuals are relatively risk averse for gains and risk seeking with respect to potential losses.  As McLain and Keenan (1999) noted, an individual responding to a situation where a loss is highly possible may feel greater motivation to select a risky response than in a situation where a net gain is more likely.  This may certainly apply to anyone on the cusp of blowing the whistle!

images (7) Framing Gains and Losses

Since an ill-gotten gain often takes away something that the victim has already while the unethical prevention of a loss does not, the individual seeking to gain may be viewed as warranting a lighter consequence than the individual attempting to prevent a loss of the same magnitude.

Contrary to what one might expect, unethical decision-makers are judged most unfavourably when attempting to obtain small gains in profit when compared to those acting to achieve large  gains or indeed in attempting to prevent a loss of either size. Flannery and May (2000) found that seeking a small gain may be especially indicative of a ‘bad’ person, since gain seeking is worse than loss prevention and there is not that much external pressure to go after a small gain; ie., being unethical is seen as more of a personal choice when the gain is a small benefit rather than a large one.

Framing Whistleblowers

Often we become aware of unethical behaviours and practices because a whistleblower has reported it.  The impressions observers have of whistleblowers are significant because certain observers, such as supervisors and co –workers may have the opportunity to retaliate against the whistleblower (Mesmer-Magnus and Viswesvaran, 2005).  In addition, the whistleblower may soon need to present him/herself to potential new employers.  Gundlach et.al (2003) suggested a potential whistleblower’s attributionsconcerning the causes of unethical behaviour are important in the decision to blow the whistle.

It seems likely that observers of whistleblowing behaviour base their impressions of the whistleblower upon attributions concerning the whistleblowers actions.  If the observers believe the whistleblower is influenced primarily by situational issues, impressions of the whistleblower may be inversely correlated to those of the unethical actor ie: Observers may feel that the value of ‘doing the right thing’ and making things right corresponds to the seriousness of the wrongdoing.  On the other hand, since individuals, such as whistleblowers, are going against the dominant forces in a setting they are seen as acting more according to their own personalities (Kelley, 1972). It is therefore possible that whistleblowers are viewed as less influenced by situational variables and more by their personalities than the unethical actors themselves!

A source of great contradiction in human behaviour is shown via studies that have found the more serious the act the greater the likelihood of whistleblowing behaviour (Miceli and Near, 1985) or expressed intent to do so (King, 1997).  This appears to be rational; however, retaliation against whistleblowers was found to occur more frequently when the whistle was blown on serious wrongdoings than when less serious acts were reported(Mesmer Magnus and Viswesvaran, 2005).

A critical factor determining the specific reaction of an observer is whether the observer identifies more with the wrongdoer or the whistleblower.

The 2007 study by Decker and Calo showed that unethical decision makers are rated most unfavourably (and whistleblowers most favourably) when unethical actors attempt to obtain small gains in profit in comparison to those acting to achieve large gains or attempting to prevent a loss of either size.  It also indicated that unethical actors are judged most unfavourably (and whistleblowers most favourably) when an action has negative consequences of moderate magnitude concentrated among a small number of victims.

In summary;  whistleblowers are rated most favourably when a wrongdoer is seeking a small  gain or the prevention of a loss and the magnitude of consequences is low.  In contrast this is when the wrongdoer would be rated most unfavourably.

The outcomes of this research imply ethical training should include focus  on becoming aware of and overcoming biases in decision-making.  It can be stressed that framing, consequence magnitude and concentration of effect can bias decision.  Students should be made aware, for example, that humans have a tendency to be influenced by whether a change in profit is framed as a potential gain or loss. Discussing the effects upon victims within all scenarios may be helpful in promoting more consistent judgements of both wrongdoers and whistleblowers.  It is acknowledged that people acquiring a better understanding of cognitive moral development may become increasing sympathetic to whistleblowers and less inclined to retaliate against them. 

Ethics training alone does not seem to have the potential to achieve a major reduction in occurrences of unethical behaviour or an increase in whistleblowing. Changes in thinking do not necessarily translate into changes in action. Interactive training mechanisms are required. As an example Mesmer-Magnus and Viswesvaran, 2005 demonstrated that the correlation between expressed intent to blow the whistle and actually doing so is rather low.

Learn about your own cognitive biases in order to have Courageous Conversations: https://speakout-speakup.org/#/training