Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Slippery When Wet: The Real Risk in Business

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Slippery When Wet: The Real Risk in Business

Article excerpt

Why Good People do Bad Things--The Continuum of Compromise

Recent studies on both sides of the Atlantic reveal that many people are currently unhappy with the ethical state of leaders in government and business. In spite of the current ethical state, many of us are still alarmed by unethical actions at major corporations, which include tax evasion, acting on insider information, lying, elaborate schemes that artificially inflate profits, and falsifying financial statements. On the one hand, why is it that so many well-respected corporate leaders and top executives cross moral boundaries, apparently without fear of disastrous consequences for their actions, especially when the right thing to do seems readily apparent? On the other hand, many of the actions of the majority of people who do not make headline news also cross moral boundaries: taking office stationary for personal use, accepting a gift from a client although it is against company policy, cutting corners to meet deadlines, lying to others, taking advantage of a customer's or client's ignorance, or turning a blind eye to a colleague's wrongdoings.

In effect, this article addresses the issue of why good people do bad things. As commonsense experience tells us, it is the small infractions that can lead to the larger ones. An organization that overlooks the small infractions of its employees creates a culture of acceptance that may lead to its own demise. This phenomenon is captured by the metaphor of the slippery slope. Many unethical acts occur without the conscience awareness of the person who engaged in the misconduct. Specifically, unethical behavior is most likely to follow the path of a slippery slope, defined as a gradual decline in which no one event makes one aware that he or she is acting unethically. The majority of unethical behaviors are unintentional and ordinary, thus affecting everyone and providing support for unethical behavior when people unconsciously lower the bar over time through small changes in their ethical behavior. (1)

The Continuum of Compromise (2) (CoC) provides a plausible explanation of the slippery-slope phenomenon. It explains how over a period of time mild job frustrations develop into a pathological, materialistic attitude and behavior that leads to devastating consequences. This phenomenon is also known by the metaphors "the thin edge of the wedge" and "the camel's nose" (once a camel has managed to place its nose within a tent, the rest of the camel inevitably follows). The CoC reflects a framework that demonstrates the potential for radical deterioration of sociomoral inhibitions and a perceived sense of permissibility for deviant conduct. In other words, if something relatively harmless is allowed or accepted, it may lead to a downward trend that ends with the unthinkable. In this article, we illustrate how the CoC provides a framework for understanding how the transition from a virtuous person to an egoist can occur. When combined with the corresponding attitude profiles, the CoC can be used as an analytical tool and a strategic framework for timely and proactive intervention in dealing with unethical conduct at the personal level. Figure 1 shows the CoC, which indicates three attitudes that characterize behaviors: the virtuous, the OUB (ordinary unethical behavior) (3) and the egoist along with three complementary stages (acts of omission, acts of administrative commission, and acts of criminal commission) that make up the continuum.


This first stage--acts of omission--is characterized by doing just enough to get by; occurs relatively easily (e.g., telling a so-called white lie, coming to work a few minutes late or leaving a few minutes early, leaving out some details on a report, not making follow-up phone calls for customer service, not showing appreciation for others' efforts, not verifying information on a purchase order, or not using initiative or contributing ideas to implement projects). …

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