Workplace ethics has been an increasing focus for businesses, policy makers and regulatory bodies in recent years. In the wake of corporate scandal, talk often turns to how organisations can change their culture and manage unethical behaviour. But, to make a much-needed change, we need to understand why unethical behaviour occurs in the first place. With this knowledge, business leaders and people professionals can take meaningful action to tackle it.

This report provides evidence-based, practical lessons that people professionals and leaders can use to minimise the likelihood of unethical behaviour in their workplace.  

The research is based on a Rapid Evidence Assessment (conducted by the CIPD, CEBMa and the Australian National University) to identify the factors that influence ethical behaviour at work. We asked three key questions: 

  1. To what extent is unethical behaviour the result of individual choices?
    Research reveals that a range of individual characteristics can affect how people behave, in particular aspects of their personality but also mood. For example, frustrated employees may be more likely to act unethically, highlighting the need for positive management practices.
  2. Is unethical behaviour the result of organisation or industry-wide problems, in particular organisational culture or ingrained norms of behaviour?
    Our findings suggest that organisational culture and leadership can influence unethical behaviour, whereas moral leadership and ethical climate and social norms enhance ethical behaviour. 
  3. How far is unethical behaviour due to the difficult or compromising nature of decisions that people face at work?
    We find that certain situations, or aspects of jobs, can impact on ethical behaviour. For instance, time pressure or isolated decision making can increase the likelihood of unethical behaviour, whereas accountability and checks and balances can reduce it. 

It’s clear that the causes of unethical behaviour are complex. But, there are key ways in which behaviour can be shifted, with good management practices, leadership and accountability all playing a part. 

Download the research report below to understand the individual, situational and organisational factors that lead to unethical behaviour and top lessons for practice.

CIPD member content

This content is only available for CIPD members

More on this topic

Bitesize research
Using algorithms to make decisions ethically and responsibly

Algorithms can help speed decisions and help organisations to operate more efficiently or profitably, but what are the pitfalls particularly from an ethical perspective?

For Members
man looking intently at a computer surrounded by coding and graphs
Bitesize research
How do employees respond to electronic performance monitoring?

Research investigates what factors influence employees’ responses to electronic performance monitoring

For Members
Guides
Ethics at work: An employer’s guide

Red flags, practical resources and action points for employers looking to foster ethical values in their organisations

Factsheets
Ethical practice and the role of people professionals

Explores the role people professionals play in applying ethical values to organisational practice

Latest evidence reviews

Evidence review
Trust and psychological safety: An evidence review

Find out what the evidence says about building trust and psychological safety

For Members
Evidence review
Effective people managers: Evidence review

Research exploring how to develop people managers who drive organisational success

For Members
Evidence review
High-performing teams: An evidence review

Explore the latest research on how to create a positive environment to build and nurture effective teams

Evidence review
Productive meetings: An evidence review

This evidence review summarises the latest research on the effective management of meetings and offers recommendations to get the most out of them

For Members
All evidence reviews