They call it “ethical fading”. You and I call it going along with something you know is wrong.

We are not talking about one weak or fearful individual who fails to blow the whistle on bad practice. We are talking about the type of organisation where acting unethically is acceptable, where such behaviour is no longer considered wrong but has become the way of doing things.

Well, it is still considered “morally” wrong but it is clear in reality that “everybody does it”.

It could be fiddling your expenses, massaging the figures, overcharging, omitting unhelpful information, offering or accepting inducements, putting profits before the health and safety of the workforce or cutting corners when it comes to protecting the environment. Today it is paying the police for tip-offs and hacking people’s phones to get a scoop.

The public sector is not immune from bad practice, especially as it seeks to adopt private sector business methods to compete in the market.

A new book called Blind Spots by Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel refers to this deterioration in ethical behaviour in an organisation as ”ethical fading”. When thing go wrong rather than simply identifying someone to blame and putting it down to greed or incompetence they attempt to look at how people actually make decisions under pressure, against tight deadlines, budget cuts and worries about their own future. It would appear that when the business is target obsessed and bonus driven most people just go along with how things are done and don’t ask too many questions.

So how should an organisation guard against this erosion of ethical behaviour or “ethic fading”? 

The tone is set from the top of the organisation and passed on through the day-to-day behaviour of managers. The organisations leaders must model the behaviour they want others to copy. Ethical fading starts when employees suspect that those at the top say one thing and do another; when leaders make statements that contradict the experience of staff and when managers choose to ignore or deny the contradiction.

It could be a statement about valuing staff, a commitment to consultation, a promise that budget cuts won’t affect front line services or that safety is the top priority. All of which are undermined by a macho management style and a finance led target driven culture.

Put another way, an early warning sign of ethical fading is a lack of integrity from the leadership. The danger is that, unaddressed, it can quickly infiltrate an organisation from top to bottom.