Enablers of the Unethical

Illustration by Katie Edwards

Elizabeth Holmes. Bernie Madoff. Harvey Weinstein. These are people known for unethical and illegal behaviors, and infamous for the scale at which they inflicted harm on others. Yet blaming unethical behaviors on a single villain downplays or ignores the network of dozens or even hundreds of people—the personal assistants, consultants, investors, subordinates, and even family members—who enabled their wrongdoing. Why are peripheral, yet complicit, actors so rarely held accountable for their supporting role in unethical behavior?

“I became obsessed with this question,” said Straus professor of business administration Max Bazerman, who has written several books on ethics in business and life. “Over time, I’ve become more interested in moving away from describing people’s behavior to prescribing how we can become more ethical. That was ultimately the motivation for writing a new book.”

In Complicit (Princeton University Press),Bazerman pulls the spotlight away from well-known wrongdoers like Holmes, Madoff, and Weinstein, and instead shines it on their networks of collaborators. The book is equal parts business case study, ethical philosophy, sociological analysis, and self-reflection, woven together by a collection of anecdotes that collectively paint a revealing portrait of the utter banality of complicity. Bazerman’s subjects are not monsters; they are ordinary people with wide-ranging motivations and psychological biases that prevent recognition of their complicity. Bazerman points out that it is precisely the very ordinariness of complicity that makes it such an entrenched problem. If individuals can’t recognize complicity in others—much less themselves—that makes it much more challenging to stop enabling behavior.

To illustrate his point, Bazerman draws on several well-known examples of unethical behavior from the business world. Consider the case of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the once high-flying diagnostics startup Theranos. Holmes was recently sentenced to 11 years in prison for fraud, but the Walgreens executives—who rolled Theranos’s products out in their stores without doing proper due diligence—walked free. Bazerman shows how legions of McKinsey & Company consultants frequently encourage their clients to engage in unethical behaviors, such as persuading insurance companies to delay payments to claimants to get them to accept lower settlements. The consultants avoid culpability by claiming they were “just offering advice.” He shows how the company loyalty of Volkswagen engineers blinded them to the emissions scandal and how executives at Purdue Pharma netted that company and its owners billions of dollars by ignoring evidence of opioid addiction.

Bazerman emphasizes examples of complicity in business not only because of his research background but also because he believes this is an area where leaders can make meaningful change. Yet complicity is not just a concern for executives. Everyone’s personal relationships form a complex web, often shaped by unstated assumptions about power, trust, authority, and loyalty that undermine participants’ ability to identify and act against complicit behaviors. Speaking up could be awkward or jeopardize friendships and careers. It doesn’t help that people tend to reduce complex phenomena to a single cause, which increases the likelihood that blame will fall on a single “villain” and ignore his or her network of what Bazerman calls “complicitors.” If participants indirectly benefit from unethical behavior—or have close social ties to the perpetrator—they will be less likely to notice it (and even if they do, may fear the potential consequences of speaking out).

“If we want to be better people,” Bazerman said, “it’s not just about engaging in good acts, it’s also avoiding playing an indirect or implicit role by allowing bad acts to happen. But it’s not that easy to be non-complicit.”

Efforts to reduce complicity in individual, organizational, or socially unethical behavior begin with the recognition that everyone is complicit in unethical behavior in some way. “We can all do a better job of thinking about how we would respond when confronted with unethical behavior,” said Bazerman, an expert in business negotiation. “I’m not saying you should immediately scream whenever you see potentially unethical behavior, but I am saying you should think about how you might personally respond.”

This point is especially pertinent for people in leadership positions, which is why he decided to write about the ethics of complicity in the first place. “Leaders are responsible not just for their own ethics but also for creating an environment where they foster more ethical behavior by all the people within their organization,” Bazerman said. “They need to set the tone for others to understand that they’re expected to do the right thing, but too many leaders do just the opposite and create a culture where employees are expected to just follow orders, which can easily lead to the unethical behavior we see in organizations throughout the book.”

Read more articles by: Daniel Oberhaus

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