Research shows that many organizations overlook needs and
opportunities to strengthen ethics. Barriers can make it hard to
see the need for stronger ethics and even harder to take effective
action. These barriers include the organization’s misleading use
of language, misuse of an ethics code, culture of silence, strategies
of justification, institutional betrayal, and ethical fallacies. Ethics
placebos tend to take the place of steps to see, solve, and prevent
problems. This article reviews relevant research and specific steps
that create change.
KEYWORDS ethics, organizations, ethics codes, moral courage,
whistleblower, ethics enforcement, institutional betrayal
We live in an age rich with opportunities to make organizational ethics
stronger. Striking betrayals of ethics and trust grab headlines:
● In 2014, General Motors (GM) admitted that since 2001 it had hidden a
potentially fatal design defect. GM engineers, investigators, and lawyers
knew, but the company decided that recalling cars would cost too much.
Instead, they kept the flaw secret for more than a decade. They kept selling
risky cars while the deaths and injuries piled up (Bennett, 2014a, 2014b,
2014c; Consumer Reports, 2014; Ivory & Abrams, 2014; Plungis & Higgins,
2014; Viscusi, 2015; Young, 2014).
● Famous for its football program’s integrity, Penn State covered up child abuse for years, allowing the abuser to continue committing crimes. The university-commissioned report stressed “the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims” (Freeh, Sporken, & Sullivan, LLP, 2012, p. 14).
● California had repealed its “compulsory sterilization laws [that] targeted minorities, the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill and criminals” (Johnson, 2014) that allowed the state to force sterilization on more than 20,000 citizens in state-run institutions (Stern, 2005; Wellerstein, 2011), but the California State Auditor (2014) reported that between 2005 and 2013 the state prison system had continued to sterilize some female prisoners, violating both the law and women’s right to informed consent.
● Many Veterans Administration (VA) executives pocketed hefty bonuses for
making sure that sick veterans got prompt care, but it was a con. Hospitals
reported that they were giving all veterans prompt care when needed
but were shunting tens of thousands of veterans to secret waiting lists
where they languished without care for months and some died without
care (Bronstein & Griffin, 2014; Daly & Tang, 2014; Hoyer & Zoroya, 2014;
Oppel & Shear, 2014; VA Office of the Inspector General, 2014; Wagner,
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