Why good people sometimes do bad things: 52 reflections on ethics at work
Why do even the most honest and conscientious employees sometimes go off the rails?
What pushes upstanding and intelligent managers over the edge?
What causes benevolent organizations to lead their customers, employees, and shareholders
up the garden path?
These questions of the twists and turns of right and wrong in the workplace are intriguing,
frightening, and more timely than ever.
Firstly these questions are intriguing. How do trusted people and organizations become
cheats? Not just once, but repeatedly and systematically. What motivates and possesses
them? What explains these twists and turns? How come factory workers went so far as to
regularly bind a colleague naked to a push cart and push it through the production room as a
joke to lighten the mood? How did a manager, having skirted around environmental regulations
year after year to the beneit of his employer, eventually reach a point where he was able to
boast about it? How did a director come to pay a customer under the table, by way of friendly
service, and still tell the tale dry-eyed? What led teachers to the point that they announced
with pride that they had boosted their students’ grades so that they could graduate quicker?
And what inspired Jeffrey Skilling, president of American energy company Enron, bankrupted
in 2001 because of the biggest case of accounting fraud in history at the time, to say shortly
before its downfall: ‘We are doing something special. Magical. It isn’t a job – it is a mission.
We are changing the world. We are doing God’s work.’ They did indeed change the world, as it
is partly due to this fraud case that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was introduced, an Act which had
implications for the governance of companies worldwide.
These observations on the behavior of ‘good’ people, however, are also. If they unconsciously
and unintentionally do wrong, then you and I might also dupe others without knowing it,
overlook important matters, and miss the point entirely. This is scary because it means that
when we think we are doing the right thing the opposite might be the case. In spite of our
Why good people sometimes do bad things 52 relections on ethics at work