Predicting ethical behavior

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GREG NAVARRO

GREG NAVARRO

A few years ago, I had the privilege of being the editor and one of the writers for the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines’ (FINEX) third book on ethics entitled Applied Ethics. I developed three of the 12 case studies featured in the book and the exercise underscored for me the importance of ethics in all sectors of society. It doesn’t matter what your standing in life is or what position you hold in an organization. What will ultimately define you is your ethical fiber.

But how does one ascertain that in other people? How can one tell if an individual is likely to do what is right?

At the Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership forum, Taya Cohen, an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon, talked about her research, which found that—among other things—knowing what people will do comes less from knowing how they think and more from knowing who they are.

It may seem like common sense, but consider the rest of Cohen’s research: In the context of the workplace, she said employers should watch out for two variables: Counterproductive Work Behavior (CWB) and Organizational Citizenship Behavior (OCB). At its simplest, CWB is behavior that harms the workplace—e.g., when an employee is perpetually late, or when a leader bullies his subordinates; and OCB is behavior that enriches a workplace—e.g., when a leader takes time out to mentor new hires, or when someone volunteers for CSR projects.


Cohen found that regardless of other factors that might affect an employee’s workplace conduct, one trait predicted these positive or negative behaviors: “guilt proneness”. She defines guilt proneness as a “predisposition to experience negative feelings about personal wrongdoing, even when the wrongdoing is private.” People with high guilt proneness are more likely to do the right thing—whether or not there is an audience—due to a strong internalized set of values. These are the kind of people you want in your organization.

To this end, Cohen and her colleagues have developed a simple test that can assess a person’s guilt-proneness. Called the Guilt and Shame Proneness (GASP) test, the tool presents an individual with hypothetical situations in which he acts unethically but is not caught. One situation, for example, goes like this: After realizing you have received too much change at a store, you decide to keep it because the salesclerk doesn’t notice. The person is then asked to rate his likelihood of feeling guilt about his action on a scale of 1 to 7, 1 being ‘very unlikely’ and 7 being ‘very likely’. The results are then tabulated into a distribution of guilt proneness.

Of course, with this test an individual can always provide the desired rating, as opposed to an honest one. But Cohen found that to a certain degree, the GASP test can weed out those people who are likely to act unethically.

Her research team used the test as part of psychological testing for applicants seeking public safety jobs in Colorado. As expected, the results were skewed toward the higher end of the scale, but they also found that those applicants whose guilt proneness scores belonged to the lowest tenth percentile were deemed unfit for employment based on other psychological and behavioral measures.

Screening for moral character is difficult enough as it is, so tools that can help employers do just that are welcome developments. After all, it isn’t a stretch to say that the character of one person can have a huge impact on the lives of many.

In one of the case studies I wrote for the FINEX book, a police chief inspector of a small, impoverished town had to weigh an offer from a wealthy businessman to single-handedly revive the town’s economy in exchange for the inspector’s implicit consent to a plan to turn the town into a hub for an illegal logging and smuggling scheme. When confronted with such a serious dilemma, you want to be certain that the person you’ve placed in authority has the strength of character to do the right thing.

The author is the Managing Partner & CEO of Navarro Amper & Co., the local member firm of Deloitte Southeast Asia Ltd., a UK private company limited by guarantee (DTTL). Deloitte provides audit, consulting, financial advisory, risk management, tax and related services to public and private clients spanning multiple industries. It has more than 210,000 professionals worldwide, including those in Deloitte Southeast Asia Ltd., which covers Brunei, Cambodia, Guam, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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