Academic journal article International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences

Losing Control: A Test of Containment Theory and Ethical Decision Making

Academic journal article International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences

Losing Control: A Test of Containment Theory and Ethical Decision Making

Article excerpt


The vast majority of studies exploring unethical business decision-making have used theories related to social processes (i.e. social learning, differential association, or rational choice) or positivism (i.e. the role of gender, biology, or factors of one's personality) to explain the occurrence of deviant acts. Collectively, these theories assert that deviant acts are the result of internal or external pressures to violate ethical standards of the business environment. Pressures within the business environment are assumed to move previously unmotivated individuals into a state of motivation, sometimes in interaction with other factors present in the environment, wherein individuals make the choice to engage in an act they know to be unethical.

However, what would happen if we were to think of all people as having some level of innate motivation? In a basic test of the general control thesis, this paper applies Reckless' theory of containment (1961a), a theory of internal and external controls, to unethical business decision-making in an attempt to assess how certain factors of inner and outer containment influence one's decision to engage in an unethical business act. To the author's knowledge there have only been a handful of studies using the control perspective to explain deviant business behavior, and none that have tested the theory of containment.

This paper argues that understanding unethical business behavior does not require us to understand the situations or factors that may lead "good" people to go "bad". Rather, we must understand how, in the presence of opportunities to engage in deviant acts, factors of control work to maintain conformity. The unethical acts being examined here are typically considered to be mala prohibita offenses - wrong because they are prohibited by law or regulation. Absent these laws, the behavior in question would be considered normal behavior as there would be no proscriptions against the behavior. As such, this paper also seeks to advance a theoretical discussion of how factors of control work to contain behavior that may be expected within the business environment. This expected behavior is performance maximizing and goal directed in nature, and represents a desire on the part of the actor to succeed at a given task or assignment. Businesses reward employees for taking just such an approach, however, the laws, rules, and regulations of the business environment work to contain such behavior when socially undesirable ends could be the result.

Theoretical Framework

Unethical business behavior will occur when controls are weakened to the point of being insufficient to contain motivated behavior in the presence of an unethical opportunity. Therefore, it may be appropriate to suggest that what needs to be understood is not why certain individuals engage in deviant acts, but rather what factors bring conformity to an inherently motivated population of potential offenders when those offenders are given opportunities to offend. Control theories seek to explain conformity to the rules and dictates of society, allowing for an exploration of the elements of society that constrain and control one's behavior. Additionally, they allow us to understand how systematic breakdowns in elements of control lead individuals to engage in socially undesirable acts. When taken within the context of the work environment, deviant goal seeking and performance-maximizing behavior should be expected when individuals are given the opportunity to engage in unethical acts, and controls are weakened to the point that they are unable to prevent the occurrence of undesirable behavior.

The drive to maximize our own self-interests provides a constant motivation to engage in some form of deviance (Gottfredson, 2006). The only thing stopping us from engaging in acts that society has deemed to be socially injurious are controls. From the perspective of social control theories, like containment theory, all controls are social controls. …

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