The Dangers of Ethical Fading in the Workplace

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Suppose your boss asks you to fudge certain numbers on a business report on the same week the company is conducting layoffs. Is this an ethical dilemma, a financial dilemma, or seeing as it will affect your family, a social dilemma? Likely, all three are true, and more layers exist beneath the surface. Are you in debt from taking a luxurious vacation? Do you have children in college? Are you hoping to get a promotion soon? Research shows that navigating through these many layers makes it increasingly difficult to see the ethical dilemma. This describes “ethical fading”, the process by which individuals are unable to see the ethical dimensions of a situation due to overriding factors.

Ann Tenbrunsel first described ethical fading in 2004 as, “the process by which the moral colors of an ethical decision fade into bleached hues that are void of moral implications.” Since moral decisions are made in the same parts of the brain that process emotions, moral decisions are made almost automatically, instinctively, and therefore are prone to self-deception. Self-deception appears in the workplace when employees see an ethical dilemma as firstly a financial dilemma or personal dilemma instead. Seeing a dilemma, such as polishing numbers in a report, as a choice that could affect personal financial stability allows an individual to make unethical decisions while still referring to themselves as an ethical person. In fact, ethical fading eliminates the awareness that one is making an unethical decision in the first place.

This phenomenon can manifest in a variety of ways, making ethical fading a difficult problem to tackle. Sometimes, an individual replaces the idea of an ethical dilemma with a financial or personal dilemma. Sometimes an individual is under so much pressure that an ethical dilemma passes through them unseen. In other cases, individuals are exposed to ethical dilemmas so often that they become jaded.

Tenbrunsel argues that ethics training in companies is null and void if ethical fading is occurring. No amount of training can teach an individual how to navigate an ethical dilemma if one doesn’t see an ethical dilemma in the first place. One recent case study of ethical fading is with college administration. In 2009, The University of Illinois was found to have a hidden admissions process that pushed through applicants with significant ties to politicians, donors, and university officials. Since the ethical dilemma was lost in the culture and organizational structure of the university’s administration, this case has been deemed an example of ethical fading. Michael N. Bastedo, director of the Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, stated that a growing number of college administrations are “starting to see ethical problems as system problems.”

Like other examples of ethical fading, budget cuts were pressuring the administration to reach out to donors more, and the ethical problem of giving preferential treatment to certain applicants was forgotten. Following Tenbrunsel’s argument, this problem wouldn’t be remedied with ethics training, unless the hidden applications system was fixed as well. Since those inside the administration didn’t see the hidden application system as an ethical problem in the first place, ethics training wouldn’t prompt employees to come forward and fix the application system.

A similar incident has been occurring in the military as well. In 2015, a study by Army War College professors Leonard Wong and Stephen J. Gerras found that lying is rampant in the military, and is likely caused by the immense physical and emotional strain that soldiers experience. Ethical fading in this case means that Army officers have become “ethically numb” to the consequences of lying. When the professors pressed their participants on how they manage juggling their many duties, classic sugar-coat phrases often heard in the business sector were reported. In order to satisfy their many duties and requirements, Army officers routinely resort to deception in the form of “hand-waving, fudging, massaging, and checking the box.” This case reveals that financial strain is not the only cause of ethical fading, but physical and emotional strain as well, and that sectors besides business are prone to ethical fading in their employees.

Tenbrunsel’s argument for self-deception provides yet another obstacle for business ethics. If the cause of unethical behavior isn’t caused by a lack of information and training, but the human trait of self-deception, no amount of ethics seminars will discourage unethical behavior. As a start, ethics training should include information on how to spot ethical fading, overcome prejudices, and tips to handle emotional strain in the workplace. However, ethical fading helps address the fact that unethical behavior is not limited to unethical people. Tenbrunsel points out the fact that everyone practices self-deception at some point, and this may be the start to addressing unethical behavior in the workplace properly. Addressing unethical behavior as a human tendency will hopefully start to fill the gaps in current ethics training programs. If not, ethical dilemmas will continue to be sugar-coated and slip through the cracks.

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Sarah is a junior intern, Honor Scholar, and Religious Studies major at DePauw from Fishers, Indiana.