Ethics Initiatives: The Problem of Ethical Subgroups

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5 Scopus citations


Ethics initiatives are commonly used by organizations to influence members' behavior with the expressed goal of aligning the behavior exhibited in the organization with the organization's stated rules and values (Laufer & Robertson, 1997; Schwartz, 2002; Tenbrunsel, Smith-Crowe, & Umphress, 2003; Trevino, Weaver, Gibson, & Toffler, 1999; Weaver, Trevino, & Cochran, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c). It is hoped that by emphasizing the organization's values and rules, organization members will be more thoughtful about their work behavior and consider these values and rules when making decisions at work. But research tells us that ethics initiatives do not always have their desired effect and possibly even have the opposite effect (Laufer & Robertson, 1997; Tenbrunsel & Messick, 2004; Tenbrunsel et al., 2003; Trevino et al., 1999; Weaver et al., 1999a, 1999b, 1999c). When the initiatives emphasize sanctions and monitoring, some argue that the organization may enact a "business" decision frame rather than an "ethics" decision frame (Tenbrunsel & Messick, 1999). When a "business" decision frame is enacted, an employee calculates the size and frequency of fines, and the likelihood of getting caught, when deciding how to behave at work. An "ethics" decision frame involves consideration of the ethical issues associated with workplace behavior. Thus, sanctions and monitoring may cause an employee to approach issues from a financial rather than an ethical perspective (Hamilton & Sanders, 1992; Paine, 1994; Tenbrunsel & Messick, 1999). Others note that organizations may not use initiatives to change behavior, but rather to placate external stakeholders or to mitigate fines and penalties associated with future infractions and litigation (Laufer & Robertson, 1997; Paine, 1994; Trevino et al., 1999). Explanations for failures in ethics initiatives generally exist at two levels of analysis: individual and organizational. Individual-level explanations include ethical fading, economic orientation, and Machiavellianism (Hegarty & Sims, 1979; Tenbrunsel & Messick, 2004). Organization-level explanations include weak organizational infrastructure and an organizational culture that supports deviance (Tenbrunsel et al., 2003; Brief, Buttram, & Dukerich, 2001). Organizational and individual-level explanations are persuasive, but they do not account for the influence of primary groups, an important antecedent to deviance in criminological theory. In this paper, I take a different approach by examining the factors at the group level that affect ethical decision-making in work groups and hinder the influence of ethics initiatives. I begin by reviewing research on the effectiveness of organizational ethics initiatives and identifying the problem of ethical subgroups. Drawing on theory from criminology, psychology, and management, I propose the conditions under which ethical subgroups will counteract organizational ethics initiatives. The paper concludes with suggestions on how organizations can manage the effects of ethical subgroups.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationResearch on Managing Groups and Teams
EditorsAnn Tenbrunsel
Number of pages18
StatePublished - 2006

Publication series

NameResearch on Managing Groups and Teams
ISSN (Print)1534-0856

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Business, Management and Accounting (miscellaneous)
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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