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25. May 2023

How much are we willing to compromise ethical values?

Original Study: Kennedy, J. A. and Kray, L. J. (2014): Who is willing to sacrifice ethical values for money and social status? Gender differences in reactions to ethical compromises. In: Social Psychology and Personality Science, Vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 52-59.

The study in one sentence

This study shows that people - in this case men and women - react differently when it comes to ethical compromises.

Of interest for people who…

… want to know why raising ethical standards in your organization can benefit not only your culture but your overall employer attractivity.

What to remember

How willing are you to compromise your ethical values for money or status? This research (consisting of three studies) found that people differ in their willingness to compromise their ethical values.  Ethical principles are categorical reasons for our actions and must be upheld unconditionally above all other considerations. We make an ethical compromise when we take a decision that subordinates ethical values (e.g. honesty, fairness, equality) to mundane values (e.g. monetary or status gain). The willingness to make such ethical compromises is subjective and a matter of degree: what seems taboo to one person, might be compromisable for another. In terms of gender, this study shows that women are less willing to make such ethical compromises to their values. They react by either not applying for a job at all, or quitting the job for this reason, although women are in general just as willing as men to pursue a career in business. The authors conclude that this is one reason why women are still under-represented in high-ranking positions of business organizations.

The most insightful sentence

«This research suggests a novel explanation for women’s underrepresentation in business: Women’s aversion to ethical compromises may steer them away from business careers. »

The most provocative sentence

«Retaining more women may have positive ethical consequences for business organizations.»

Consequences for managerial practice

The results of the study encourage a new perspective on two management areas currently en vogue: diversity and sustainability efforts. To resolve this general mismatch between women's ethical values and business, the solution is either to advise women on how to compromise more, or for business organizations to start raising their ethical standards in leadership and decision-making. I suspect the latter is the more promising solution because it helps with two more strategic challenges: 1) We know from research that what holds women back is very similar to what holds the next generation back. So investing in a culture that requires fewer ethical compromises will help to attract the next generation and, in turn, strengthen the overall employer attractivity and diversity. 2) In addition, since the research was published, there has been a significant increase in public expectations for companies to act more sustainably and ethically. A culture of high ethical standards will benefit an overall public credibility and trust in this regard. As a consequence, it may be beneficial for future recruitment, evaluation and promotion to look beyond past performance, skills or qualifications and instead include ethical standards, awareness and courage in the equation.

Food for forward-thinking…

Have you ever been asked in a job interview about your ethics, ethical compromises or courage? Or have you ever been promoted for your willingness or unwillingness of ethical compromises? If ethics becomes an even more important leadership skill and attitude, do you have any thoughts or ideas on how we can assess it? Thanks for sharing!

Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Human Facts AG
Founder | Managing Partner
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