Most of us know what we should
do when someone steps out of line, but do we do it? Is it out of fear
for our job that we say nothing? Is it because we can see no one else is
stepping up and/or fear being rejected by the group?
In the Harvard Business Review
article, "The Psychology Behind Unethical Behavior," organizational
psychologist Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg describes three psychological
dynamics that she says prevent people from behaving ethically:
omnipotence, cultural numbness, and justified neglect. These dynamics
actually lead to the crossing of ethical lines, and as such are
important situations for internal auditors to watch out for.
is when people feel so entitled they believe the rules around decent
behavior don't actually apply to them. Power corrupts and crossing a
line feels like something they are owed, not a transgression.
behavior can be a good thing when it leads to innovation and
breakthroughs in thinking. Unfortunately, it too often becomes a problem
when it leads to bad behavior where fewer and fewer people are willing
or able to keep the person grounded.
For internal auditors, this
characteristic often is easy to spot. It manifests in the type of
treatment executives begin to expect and starts showing up in expense
reports. It's demonstrated when managers are given too much power and
authority and begin to treat others poorly. It also can show up in
instances where individuals become so attached to their work that their
sense of ownership begins to significantly outweigh their sense of
loyalty. In that case, this could be an early warning sign for someone
becoming capable of rationalizing, and ultimately perpetrating, fraud.
How do you make sure this doesn't happen to you? Recognize you have weaknesses, own your flaws, and think about them regularly.
occurs when people play along and gradually accept and embody deviant
norms. No matter how principled someone is, Wedell-Wedellsborg writes,
time erodes the "bearings of your moral compass," which results in a
shift toward whatever the accepted culture of his or her own
This slow shift is difficult to detect, but
devastating to ignore as this unethical behavior becomes completely
normal and accepted no matter how bad it gets. In many cases, the
unethical behavior becomes so embedded that employees, particularly
management, will rationalize and defend it to the point where good
employees are left with an awful choice: accept it or look for a new
As internal auditors continue to have an increased focus on
auditing culture, we must be careful not to allow ourselves to become
culturally numb. One simple tactic to identify cultural numbness: Think
about how the behavior would sound to an outside audience. Consider
"MNJ" — Mom, Newspaper, Judge. If any of these trusted sources would
react negatively to the behavior in question, think twice.
is when people don't speak up about ethical breaches due to thoughts of
more immediate rewards such as staying in the good graces of the
powerful. Wedell-Wedellsborg explains that the human mind is skilled at
justifying something as a minor issue when there is a tangible reward at
stake, and when the risk of getting caught is low. The problem is that
bending the rules becomes a slippery slope on which it is easy to gain
Creating strong policies, procedures, and controls are the
best way to combat this dynamic. Internal audit is uniquely positioned
to provide assurance that such protections are in place within an
organization, are effective, and are being followed.
unethical behavior occurs among peers, those being audited, or at the
highest levels of the organization, internal auditors need to be
prepared to identify and deal with it. Be aware of psychological
conditions that push people across ethical lines. It also doesn't hurt
to perform a quick self-check every now and then to ensure you aren't
falling victim to these dynamics.
That's my point of view. I'd be happy to hear yours. For additional guidance specific to The IIA's Code of Ethics, click here.