top of page
  • Tamar Balkin

Can Leaders Minimise The Likelihood Of Unethical Behaviour?

“Hey, white liar

Truth comes out a little at a time

And it spreads just like a fire

Slips off of your tongue like turpentine

And I don't know why, white liar

Here's a bombshell just for you

Turns out I've been lying too”

White Liar by Miranda Lambert (Click here for the  song)


"I don’t understand, they are lawyers and accountants, they belong to two professions with strict codes of conduct. What happened ?"

Coaching client


Researchers have found that many unethical behaviours that may seem deliberate are actually unintentional.  Although some people plan to behave unethically, many individuals start with good intentions but ultimately engage in unethical behaviour. Unethical behaviours are defined as acts that have harmful effects on others and are “either illegal or morally unacceptable to the larger community” (Jones, 1991).


Researchers have found that to behave ethically the following is required: 

1. Recognition of the moral aspect of an issue, decision, or situation, 

2. Reasoning through moral dilemmas 

3. Activating a moral decision-making process  

4. Taking appropriate action. 

Failure can occur at any stage and these steps take time, a clear head, and resources.

 Why do people behave unethically? 


There is an increasing gap (Ethics Expectation Deficit) between the importance society is placing on ethical behaviour and broad ethical performance.”

Governance Institute of Australia


Ethics scholars have long debated whether unethical behaviour is primarily a result of character flaws, situational influences, or both. Recent research is supportive of the interactive model.

Researchers have found that the decision to behave unethically commonly requires people to weigh two opposing forces: the desire to maximize self-interest and the desire to maintain a positive moral self-image and future relationships. Immediate self-interest can be alluring, even when it contradicts the overarching objective of maintaining ethical conduct. Researchers have found that Self-control is essential to resolve the internal conflict between the short- and long-term benefits of dishonest acts.

Resisting unethical behaviour consumes self-regulatory resources, repeated exposure to ethical dilemmas is taxing and may make otherwise ethical individuals particularly vulnerable.

Interestingly, researchers have found that individuals who strongly value morality, easily recognise and reason through moral issues and thus researchers have found that they may not need to rely on their self-control.  

What increases the likelihood of unethical behaviour?


"The modern high-power dealer of woe wears immaculate linen, carries a silk hat and a lighted cigar, sins with a calm countenance and a serene soul, leagues or months from the evil he causes"

(Ross, 1907,


Periods of stress like organisational change, financial pressures, increased competition, and ambiguity, place extra cognitive demands on leaders exacerbating the likelihood of poor ethical decision making.  

Researchers have found that leaders who tend to display anger, be impulsive, and unable to control or resist urges may struggle to control inappropriate emotions and behavioural patterns. They may engage in unethical and damaging interpersonal behaviour that is inconsistent with organizational norms and demonstrate unethical conduct in the workplace.

Regular readers would know that the behaviour of the leader sets the tone for the behaviour of others in the organisation.  


“While bonuses and commissions offer powerful incentives, they can also motivate individuals to focus on short-term goals at the expense of being a team player – discouraging collaboration and encouraging cheating.”

Dr Michael Collins.



Researchers have found that setting compensation goals can increase dishonesty when managers are also paid a bonus for hitting certain targets. Staff may behave dishonestly, and unethically, increase their risk-taking, and not exercise self-control.  In addition, competitive cultures if not managed appropriately can drive poor ethical behaviour.


“The research shows that in many cases, unethical behaviour is the result of people simply failing to recognise the nature of their actions. It’s a deterioration in judgement that can lead to otherwise good people doing bad things, but this doesn’t make them any less harmful,” 

Dr Michael Collins



Regular readers are familiar with the concept of resource depletion and its impact on well-being. Researchers have found that the depletion of resources has been found to compromise an individual's ability to make appropriate ethical decisions.

Common stressors include:

  • Exhaustion,

  • Frustration

  • Lack of sleep

  • Working under time pressure,

  • Meeting unrealistic work demands

  • Repetitive exposure to complex ethical dilemmas


When individuals are motivated more by a desire to appear moral than to actually be moral, researchers have found that these self-serving justifications are unlikely to promote ethical behaviour at the individual or organisational level.

Regrettably, an insidious cycle can perpetuate unethical behaviour, as individuals may grow bolder after successfully engaging in such conduct in the past. Alternatively, they may feel trapped, seeing no viable way to rectify the situation other than persisting in their inappropriate actions.

What can be done?

Leaders should be encouraged to develop emotional self-awareness and self-regulation to help build resilience to adversity and setbacks.  The third space is an excellent practical technique to use in this context. Researchers have found that employees should carefully schedule their activities. For example, leaders may benefit from arranging tasks to reduce the likelihood that their employees will face ethical decisions when their self-regulatory resources are depleted.  In addition to educating staff on the ethical issues about common dilemmas that employees face at work, leaders have a responsibility to focus on removing temptations, developing self-control, and monitoring individuals who are at risk.

The selection of employees across various levels, particularly in challenging and high-stress work settings, is crucial. This includes the identification and nurturing of leaders who bear the ultimate responsibility for maintaining ethical standards and driving organisational change. Neglecting to consider these traits like anger and impulsivity, and previous history of ethical decision-making, could have adverse effects on both employees and organisations.

Final thoughts:

Clear policies and procedures and an organisational commitment to the appropriate management of unethical behaviour in the workplace are crucial. Leaders need to be consistent in their approach and ensure that their behaviour in this context is of the highest ethical standards.

Some readers may know that I have the privilege of supervising Organisational Psychology Masters students and Masters graduates, to meet the regulatory requirements required to practice and use the title organisational psychologist.

There is national legislation that defines the process I undertook to be an approved supervisor and the role and responsibility I undertake in this capacity.

One of the 8 competencies that supervisees need to learn pertains to ethics, specifically, I need to ensure they are aware of any limitations of competence, ethical difficulty, personal bias or aspect of personal development in the registrar that the supervisor perceives to be affecting the registrar’s professional development and/or professional application.  

On a practical level, it involves:

- Identifying ethical concerns.

-Understanding and accessing our professional code of ethics

-Contacting experienced  colleagues to discuss dilemmas, particularly  when there is ambiguity

Finally, developing the confidence to resist real or imagined pressure from stakeholders, colleagues and clients to deviate from ethical behaviour.


Something new: A Homework challenge

One of the major themes in the 2023 Australian Ethics Index report was deception/lying.  I thought it may be interesting to see if it is possible to last a week without lying.

That means:

  • no white lies,

  • no lies for convenience,

  • no saying you're "fine" when you're feeling blah or crummy, and

  • no telling people they look great when they don't (really, they know how they look).

If you are up for the challenge, let me know how you go.



Collins, M. D., & Restubog, S. L. D. (2021). The effect of trait anger and impulsiveness on ethical leadership and support for organizational change. Journal of Research in Personality, 91, 104072.

Gino, F., Schweitzer, M.E., Mead, N.L. and Ariely, D. (2011). Unable to resist temptation: How self-control depletion promotes unethical behaviour. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 115(2), pp.191–203. doi:

Clarkson R, Darjee R. White-collar crime: a neglected area in forensic psychiatry? Psychiatr Psychol Law. 2022 Feb 3;29(6):926-952. doi: 10.1080/13218719.2021.1995522. PMID: 36267602; PMCID: PMC9578465.

Ross, E. A. (1907). Sin and society: An analysis of latter-day iniquity. Mifflin. [Google Scholar]

Tyler, J.M. and Burns, K.C. (2008). After Depletion: The Replenishment of the Self’s Regulatory Resources. Self and Identity, 7(3), pp.305–321. doi:

Chen, Q. and Liu, Z. (2022). Hospitality’s ethical values and unethical employee behaviour: The mediating roles of work values and the moderating role of perceived organisational support. Frontiers in Psychology, [online] 13. doi:

Guidelines on area of practice endorsements, Psychology Board of Australia. 


bottom of page