Creating an Ethical Workplace: Applying a Model for Ethical Behavior

Workplace ethics remain at the forefront of concerns for organizations of all types where employees can do harm as a result of unethical behavior. A report sponsored by the SHRM Foundation (Olson, 2013) underscores the importance of workplace ethics and the prevalence of ethics-related issues and concerns, noting:

  • Nearly half of U.S. employees report witnessing unethical or illegal conduct in their workplaces, and the majority of these events go unreported and unaddressed.
  • More than half of the 10 largest corporate bankruptcies since 1980 resulted from unethical business practices.
  • In 2012, corporations paid almost $8 billion in fines for defrauding the U.S. government and taxpayers. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report found that a major cause of the 2008 crisis was a systematic breakdown in ethics.

Given the prevalence of ethical misbehavior, it is not surprising to see almost daily evidence recounted in the media. High profile cases of fraudulent actions by executives and individuals in positions of authority are frequently described that result in multimillion dollar settlements, criminal convictions, and the destruction of personal and corporate reputations.

At the same time, instances of unethical actions among employees in relatively low-compensation jobs receive less attention in the headlines. There are many such jobs that have access to money, property, or sensitive information. For example, customer service representatives, retail employees, and security guards.  These “low pay/high trust” jobs also pose potential risks to do serious harm via unethical actions.

This week, I will be leading a symposium on this topic at the 32nd Annual Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology Conference in Orlando, FL.  This session will review a model for unethical behavior in the workplace and its application to develop a program to foster an ethical work culture, focusing on low wage/high trust jobs in the assessment industry. The presenters bring a diverse range of perspectives, including academic and consulting environments. The session will provide a case study to serve as a backdrop to examine the application of elements of the model, considerations, and implications for research and practice.

In the first presentation, Professor Paul Sackett, University of Minnesota, will review and discuss the development of an actionable model of the determinants of unethical/counterproductive behavior by employees. Drawing from the literature review examining a variety of existing models of determinants of ethical/unethical behavior, the best and most actionable aspects of various models were identified which could be applied in the workplace. The resulting model is comprised of three sets of factors, including fixed individual factors, changeable individual factors, and organizational factors. The model served as a foundation for the design of a program to foster an ethical workplace culture.

In the second presentation, I will describe the application of the Sackett-PSI model as a framework to design a program for creating an ethical work culture for low wage/high trust jobs in the assessment industry; i.e., test proctors.  This presentation will explore the design of program components, considerations for implementation, and empirical research that is underway to evaluate and optimize the program.

The third presentation by Cathleen Callahan, Sr. Manger of Assessment Solutions at PSI, will review the development of a workplace ethics training program designed to address ethical principles and behavior guidelines that are specific to the context of the test proctor role.  A work culture survey was also developed on the basis of the Sackett-PSI actionable model, which is used to gauge the ethical culture.

The session discussant, Professor Neal Schmitt, Michigan State University, will discuss salient points of the presentations, recommendations for future research, and implications and opportunities for I-O practice.

To learn more, join us for this SIOP session on Saturday, April 29th, beginning at 8:00 a.m.  Following the presentations, there will be a facilitated audience discussion, led by Dr. Schmitt and joined by the presenters. Attendees will have an opportunity to share perspectives and discuss implications for I/O practice and opportunities for research collaboration.

We hope to see you there!

John Weiner is Chief Science Officer at PSI.  Contact him at or by phone at 818.847.6180.

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