Why we are all capable of unethical behaviour


Sarah Battey, Marcus Bell, Katrina Bramstedt, Guy Kerger, Marcus Mueller and Claudia Neumeister are seen on the panel of the British Chamber of Commerce for Luxembourg’s business ethics conference, 16 October 2019. The event was hosted at the Banque de Luxembourg. Image credit: Steve Eastwood. Photo courtesy of the British Chamber of Commerce 

Speaking at the event were Marcus J. Ball, a private prosecutor, Prof Katrina Bramstedt of the Luxembourg Agency for Research Integrity and AskTheEthicist, Guy Kerger of Mindforest, and Prof Marcus Müller of Sacred Heart University.

What causes unethical decisions to be taken--the Volkswagen diesel emissions affair being just one example that has come to light in the past 5 years? Why do financial priorities override ethical concerns that in extreme cases can lead to loss of life--such the Brazilian iron ore tailings dam disasters in 2015 and 2019 that claimed over 250 lives?

Facilitated by Sarah Battey of AllAboutTalent and Claudia Neumeister of LuxDates, both members of the BCC’s People & Leadership group, each panellist contributed a unique perspective on the debate.

Prof Müller explained that in evolutionary terms we have had to make a choice between disagreement--i.e., speaking up for what we believe in, with the risk of being rejected-- and remaining silent but continuing to enjoy the protection of the group. From that point of view, not speaking up is essentially a protective instinct and a remnant of earlier times.

Using an interactive app the audience were polled on the reasons why people do not speak up when they see “bad” things happening. “Fear of negative personal consequences (to the career)” was seen to be the key driver of people’s reluctance to voice their concerns. This seemed to echo the idea that people instinctively put the need to be part of the group first.

Marcus Ball explained how--driven by his sense of justice--he had made a conscious decision to not accept the fact that politicians had been making election promises that they didn’t keep, despite the personal and financial risks involved.

Guy Kerger pointed out that employees need to feel safe in order to speak up, so a “no-blame” culture is essential if leaders want to encourage employees contribute their views and, for example, avoid repeating errors.

All panellists agreed that company values are not enough--unless leaders role-model ethical behaviour themselves, people will not feel encouraged to speak up and flag issues. As Prof Bramstedt pointed out, leaders need to be willing to hold up a mirror to themselves to be sure that their values and behaviours remain ethical. Wealth creation in itself is not the issue--how the wealth is acquired is the key question.

Kerger described his experience with one company where replacing just the CEO led to a complete cultural change, with the new leader walking the floor and generally implementing an approachable leadership style that empowered employees.

Finally, Ball noted that based on his personal experience, if you are not in a position of power, it is very hard to challenge the status quo. Those in positions of influence should speak up on behalf of those who are fighting for just causes but are not influential on their own due to a lack of network or resources.

Sarah Battey is vice chair of the British Chamber of Commerce for Luxembourg