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Managers Should Prevent Ethical ‘Slippery-Slope Effect,’ Researchers Say

July 1, 2014

Just one small ethical lapse can snowball into big trouble, a recent study found.

As BusinessWeek (via Mashable) reported on June 26, workers and companies are vulnerable to scandal unless managers snuff out ethical transgressions, even those that seem minor.

Researchers tested college students and professionals to see how they would respond when offered cash incentives for cheating, and how unethical decisions compound over time.

For the study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, two groups were asked to estimate the number of dots in two triangles, and received more money for saying the left triangle had the most dots, even when a greater number was gradually appearing in the right triangle.

When incentives for little fibs slowly morphed into incentives for big lies, rates of unethical behavior more than doubled, wrote four business school professors who authored the study.

“Because of this rationalization process — what we call ‘moral disengagement’ — people are more likely to slip into a pattern of behavior,” researcher Deirdre Snyder of Providence College said. “We call this ‘the slippery-slope effect.’”

Referring to his $18 billion Ponzi scheme, Bernie Madoff reportedly once said, “… it starts out with you taking a little bit…. You get comfortable with that, and before you know it, it snowballs into something big.”

According to the researchers, “More ethical behavior may result over time when employees are encouraged to be vigilant in identifying financial mistakes rather than creative in attempting to find new financial loopholes.” — Greg Beaubien


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