Workplace ethics has been an increasing focus for businesses, policy makers and regulatory bodies in recent years. In the wake of corporate scandal, talk often turns to how organisations can change their culture and manage unethical behaviour. But, to make a much-needed change, we need to understand why unethical behaviour occurs in the first place. With this knowledge, business leaders and people professionals can take meaningful action to tackle it.

This report Rotten apples, bad barrels and sticky situations: a review of unethical workplace behaviour, provides evidence-based, practical lessons that people professionals and leaders can use to minimise the likelihood of unethical behaviour in their workplace.  

The research is based on a Rapid Evidence Assessment (conducted by the CIPD, CEBMa and the Australian National University) to identify the factors that influence ethical behaviour at work. We asked three key questions: 

  • To what extent is unethical behaviour the result of individual choices?

Research reveals that a range of individual characteristics can affect how people behave, in particular aspects of their personality but also mood. For example, frustrated employees may be more likely to act unethically, highlighting the need for positive management practices.

  • Is unethical behaviour the result of organisation or industry-wide problems, in particular organisational culture or ingrained norms of behaviour?

Our findings suggest that organisational culture and leadership can influence unethical behaviour, whereas moral leadership and ethical climate and social norms enhance ethical behaviour. 

  • How far is unethical behaviour due to the difficult or compromising nature of decisions that people face at work?

We find that certain situations, or aspects of jobs, can impact on ethical behaviour. For instance, time pressure or isolated decision making can increase the likelihood of unethical behaviour, whereas accountability and checks and balances can reduce it. 

It’s clear that the causes of unethical behaviour are complex. But, there are key ways in which behaviour can be shifted, with good management practices, leadership and accountability all playing a part. 

Download the research report below to understand the individual, situational and organisational factors that lead to unethical behaviour and top lessons for practice.

Access the technical report to learn more about the scientific evidence and the methodology of this review.