How Organizations Shape Employees’ Ethical Behavior


I was in a meeting this week where a group of people who – prior to the meeting – were individually very passionate in their views about a decision. As soon as the meeting began, the individual with the greatest positional power expressed his view and, lo and behold,  suddenly everyone abandoned their own view and latched onto this person’s viewpoint. I chuckled to myself because it reminded me of high school and the overwhelming need to follow the popular crowd despite one’s beliefs that a difference course of action may be best. Another way to think about it is “don’t rock the boat” or “stay in your lane.”

It got me thinking about Kohlberg’s cognitive moral development (CMD) theory, mostly because it is the only ethical theory that I remembered from my university days. Before I share my opinion and analysis on organizational ethics, here is a summary of how I would explain Kohlberg’s CMD theory (you can Google the theory to learn more and maybe even fact check me). But boiled down to a very basic framework, Kohlberg believed in three levels with various stages to describe how people make moral decisions:

Level 1 – Pre-conventional level

  • Stage 1 – Obedience vs. punishment. If you can think of the United States as an organization, this would be the basis of criminal and civil law. If you murder someone, you go to jail. If you pollute, you get fined. If you steal, maybe you get community service. You get the point.
  • Stage 2 – Individualism and exchange. This is your typical organizational method to increase efficiency or sales by providing a commission-based bonus or pay raise or a fancy title to reward those who perform. Essentially, you do something so you can get rewarded.

Level 2 – Conventional

  • Stage 3 – Accord conformity. This is the example that I provided earlier. It’s where you follow the crowd. It’s all about conforming to the prevailing view or activity of the organization.
  • Stage 4 – Social accord and system maintenance. The way I like to think of this stage is thinking about the Patriot Act. Do you remember when the government used the Patriot Act to access phone data? It arguably invaded the personal privacy of users but companies were willing to allow the intrusion because they were complying with the law.

Level 3 – Post-conventional

  • Stage 5 – Social contract & individual judgment. This is how I view certain actions of innovative companies like Apple. Remember when the FBI requested Apple to decrypt an iPhone following the San Bernardino attacks? Apple said “no” because they felt that the privacy of their users was more important despite the devastating effects of those attacks.
  • Stage 6 – Universal ethical principles. This one is a difficult stage to explain or even envision. It’s when an individual or an organization can act independently free of external influences. The closest I can think of is Yoda. That said, Yoda was a Jedi and he was bound by the Jedi code and so he isn’t a good example. It would arguably be the very first Jedi who maybe created the Jedi code shaping and developing it as she sees fit.

This is obviously a very high-level summary of the theory but it does help you understand or somehow categorize how organizations shape ethical behavior. It can be a little confusing so I created this slide below to help:

Stage Behaviors that Organizations Can Adopt to Encourage the Particular Stage
1 Punishment (e.g., disciplinary actions, demotions, cuts in pay)
2 Rewards (e.g., commission based bonuses, promotions, raises, paid vacations, corner office)
3 Conformity (mix of stage 1 & 2 to condition behavior)
4 Clear and robust policies and procedures (mix of stage 1 – 3)
5 Social gadfly (mix of stage 1 & 2 to condition behavior)
6 By shaping the behavior, the individual will no longer be part of stage 6 by definition

In particular, because of my own experiences working in the public sector, I look at stage 3. I am not really exploring here whether stage 3 is good or bad. It’s just what my experience has been. I am, however, curious to understand how an organization can move from one stage to another – if it so desired. I’m also curious about whether it’s possible for an individual who predominantly views their world at a Stage-5 level to survive working in a stage-3 organization?

Do I think an organization is stuck in one stage? No, absolutely not. I do believe that organizations can move between various stages depending on the circumstance or moral intensity of the situation. But I guess I’m wondering if it’s possible to consciously encourage one level over another. Or maybe I’m over-simplifying it.

What do you think? Do you think an organization has the power to shape an individual’s ethical behavior? Do any of the stages speak particularly to your experience? Let me know in the comments below.

Lekshmy Sankar is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

One of the most difficult aspects of providing ethical leadership and fostering adherence to codes of conduct is how to get employees to generalize. This is pretty much true at all ages, but nicely illustrated in studying children’s moral and general intellectual development. I recall well a paper we read in grad school about how grade-school children failed to connect basic arithmetic and making change with coins. In their minds, these were two entirely separate systems of action. We tend to learn things in context, and sometimes we think about them only within the boundaries of a given context – one of the many reasons why the omnipresent retreats and 2-day workshops often fail to take root in the workplace. It takes time, experience, and prompts for both children and adults to see the more abstract connection between different contexts, and recognize that principles applying to context A also apply to context B.

This was nicely illustrated for me in the work context by an experience my wife relayed to me. A decade or so back, she was attending an orientation course for new public servants. Her session-mates came from a variety of agencies and had a variety of occupations (she was a scientific evaluator of WHMIS sheets). When the topic came around to values and ethics, one of the attendees, who was a ships welder in the defense department, voiced the view that “all of that ethics stuff” was for others and not relevent to his work context. My wife asked him what he would think if he saw one of his co-workers making sub-standard welding joints. He replied that it would be unconscienable in his view. “So ethical behavior IS relevent to your work”, she responded, and the fellow realized that yes it was. Without that intervention on her part, I imagine he would have zoned out for that segment of the orientation, and tuned back in when he thought something was relevent.

Many of the ethical decisions we have to make on a daily basis are in circumstances that we have likely not encountered before, or have never been broached in any instruction we received. If we’re lucky, we have colleagues we can discuss them with before taking action, but mostly we deal with them on our own, and it is up to us to sense that an ethical decision needs to be made determine that some principle or set of principles applies in such-and-such a manner in this context.

The overarching goal of ethical leadership in the workplace is not simply adherence to a set of rules, but to foster the sort of “ethical independence” that facilitates people doing the right thing all the time, when there are no straightforward rules or policies to guide them in this particular circumstance.

Lekshmy Sankar

wow! Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. “ethical independence” – I think it’s a hard concept because like your story about the welder, often times we tend to think things don’t apply to us. That worries me. I wonder sometimes in our public sector, are we going to have ethical independence when we are trained to think one way all day? I don’ t know.