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Popularity a disadvantage when it comes to workplace ethical dilemmas, study finds

August 1, 2008

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

In organizing round-the-clock testing for a new product, should a manager exempt workers from the graveyard shift if they have children at home, or would that be unfair to other employees?
Is it right to cover up for two friends who are pursuing a business venture of their own on company time, even if it is hurting the performance of one's entire work group?
Ethical questions, like these, can present some of the toughest challenges on the job. And, surprisingly, they present the greatest risk to the employees most connected with their fellow workers, those with the largest social networks, according to research presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Anaheim.
"As the size of their network increases, individuals are more likely to overestimate the proportion of others who agree with their ethical judgments," explain the study's authors, Frank Flynn and Scott Wiltermuth of Stanford University.
"Individuals are …inclined to talk about safe subjects in the workplace -- sports, kids, current events," they write. "Therefore, little of the insight that people gain from social ties may apply to personal bases of moral judgment."
The study's findings, they continue, challenge the assumption "that network ties would help employees understand not only how their peers feel about a task-related problem, a political concern, or a social issue, but also how they would choose to act when faced with an ethical dilemma...In short, employees with large social networks...appeared to be overconfident that their ethical judgments were in line with [those] of the majority of their colleagues."
The findings derive from an online survey presenting a variety of ethical dilemmas called "tough choices" to three groups  -- 162 MBA students, 53 executives enrolled in a masters of management program, and 34 employees in the marketing department of a large food-manufacturing company. Respondents were asked whether they regarded the indicated responses to the dilemmas to be ethical and what percentage of their classmates, they thought, would consider those choices ethical. They were then asked to respond to a series of questions designed to assess the size of their social network within their class or department.
The results were consistent with what behavioral researchers call the "false consensus bias," the tendency of people to project their own habits and values on others. Thus, respondents to the survey tended to estimate that their classmates or fellow-workers would agree with their own view of the ethical dilemmas. If their view happened to be in the minority, that did not prevent them from estimating that a majority of their group would answer as they did. And this conviction of being in the majority was strongest, the investigators found, in people with the largest social networks.
"Our findings amount to a cautionary message," Prof. Flynn comments. "Managers and workers will do well to maintain a healthy appreciation of the difficulty presented by ethical issues and to resist jumping to the conclusion that most co-workers share their views. Jumping to that conclusion invites discovering later that one was mistaken, at a point when it is too late to reconsider the decision one made."
The study, entitled "Who's with Me? False Consensus, Social Networks, and Ethical Decision-Making in Organizations," was among several thousand research reports at the Academy of Management meeting. Founded in 1936, the Academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has more than 18,000 members in 92 countries, including more than 10,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting drew more than 9,000 scholars and practitioners to Anaheim, California from August 10th to 13th for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related topics.
Media Coverage:
The Washington Post. When the Crowd Errs. (Thursday, August 28, 2008).

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