Common ethics dynamics in Zucker, Flores matters

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We like to think that high-profile ethics issues like CNN CEO Jeff Zucker’s resignation (for failing to follow CNN’s conflict of interest rules) and former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores’ discrimination lawsuit against the NFL, are outliers. We like to chalk up conduct like Zucker’s to personal arrogance and believe lawsuits like Flores’ are “complicated legal matters.”

The truth, and the good news and bad news, is that both situations result from several common, problematic ethics dynamics.

Moral licensing

There are several ethics dynamics underlying the CNN/Zucker situation. One common dynamic is “moral licensing.” Moral licensing is the ethical equivalent of cheating on your diet. The mischievous trick our brains play on us when we are dieting is to tell us: “You have been so good limiting your carbs, calories, or whatever it is you are counting, that having this one little cookie or small scoop of ice cream won’t ‘hurt.’” And sometimes it doesn’t “hurt” — until we fall for the trick one too many times.

Often, we do not consciously hear the trick; it is the autopilot function and we are the Tesla automobile. Or if we do think about it, we recognize it too late to modify our “in the moment” conduct.

Researchers Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel found that our minds play the same trick on us when it comes to ethics. We tell ourselves, “I worked late last week so it is OK if I take a longer lunch this week” or “The company doesn’t pay me a fair salary, so it it’s OK that I take office supplies for personal use.” Can’t we hear Zucker’s autopilot telling him he did not have to report his relationship with a subordinate because “we don’t know whether this relationship will last. I can report once it becomes serious.”

Or if it did make Zucker’s conscious thought processes, he may have fallen prey to another common ethics trap called “ethical fading,” which is another dynamic identified by Bazerman and Tensbrunsel.

Ethical fading

Ethical fading is the ethics equivalent of parents saying: “Yes, it is a serious thing that Johnny got expelled from school for hitting another student in the face, but that student was wrong for calling Johnny a dweeb. Plus, the school handled it all wrong. I am calling the principal first thing in the morning.” By coupling the actions of the other boy and the school’s process into the analysis of Johnny’s behavior, the ethical implications of Johnny’s actions “fade.” In truth, the situation involves three different issues that should be analyzed separately. Unethical and ethical conduct stand alone. One does not balance out the other.

Perhaps, Zucker’s autopilot was engaging in ethical fading by telling Zucker that the upcoming launch of the network’s new streaming platform was too important, and needed all his focus, justifying a delay in reporting. Perhaps he “faded” the ethical and leadership implications of failing to follow the rules of the company he ran by focusing on the urgent business demands on his plate.

Zucker’s bosses also may have engaged in ethical fading. By many accounts Zucker’s relationship with his subordinate was an “open secret” that did not become an “issue” until the investigation of Chris Cuomo. (After all, if you fire your top-rated anchor for having a conflict of interest, you had better not have a conflict of interest yourself.) Perhaps prior to Cuomo’s departure, the powers that be at CNN faded the ethics of Zucker’s apparent relationship with a subordinate by focusing on his highly successful business skills and the damage to the network should Zucker leave.

Obviously, any ethical fading ended in a big way.

Outcome-based compliance

The Flores lawsuit involves another fascinating dynamic Bazerman and Tenbrunsel identified. Fortunately, this dynamic involves some good news. The good news is that most people are intrinsically motivated to be ethical. We naturally want to do the right thing. 

Research reveals that well-intentioned rules designed to address ethical and moral issues, like the NFL’s Rooney Rule requiring clubs to interview a certain number of diverse candidates for coaching and coordinator positions, are ineffective.

Bazerman and Tensbrunsel found that: “One reason one-dimensional goals fail is because they cause individuals to be driven by an extrinsic motivation to comply rather than by an intrinsic motivation to do what is right.”

In one experiment, when people were told to “do your best” in editing a document they did a better job than when told to focus on “correcting grammar mistakes.”

Motivating people by appealing to their innate desire to do the right thing may be more successful than a rule-based approach. In other words, a values-based approach helps people understand what is right in any given situation, rather than complying with a checklist of rules. Outcome-based evaluation and accountability measures are key to the success of values-based approaches.

Part of the problem with the NFL’s Rooney Rule is that it does not appear to hold clubs accountable for insufficient outcomes. Outcome-based evaluation and accountability are key to improving cultural ethics.

Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president for football operations, acknowledged the need for outcome-based evaluation in the NFL’s 2021 Diversity & Inclusion Report, stating: “As we approach this new decade of occupational mobility, we must be willing to boldly determine success metrics, expand policy, provide proper incentives, and prioritize accountability.”

What this means

The good news about these common ethics dynamics is that they do not make Zucker, the NFL, and all of us who fall prey to these dynamics from time to time intrinsically unethical people or organizations. It only means we are human.

If we want to succeed and meet our goals, we must learn about these common ethics dynamics and create tools and processes to account for them.

And time is of the essence for organizations to improve their ethical and cultural wellness. Currently, entire industries are struggling to retain employees. By November 2021, for example, the associate turnover rate in large law firms had reached 23.2%.

Toxic work cultures are the top driver of The Great Resignation. “Resigners” cited three factors in defining a toxic work environment:

  • A failure to seriously address DEI issues
  • Treating employees disrespectfully
  • Unethical work environments

Moral licensing, ethical fading and ineffective rule structures, along with other ethics dynamics, contribute to DEI, ethical and cultural issues in organizations.

The Great Resignation, customer boycotts and lawsuits all are indications that values matter to people both inside and outside of organizations.

The good news is that we can learn about problematic ethics dynamics, build tools to avoid them, and become the better organizations and people we naturally want to be.

Victoria Vuletich is founder and president of Ethics Squared. She is a trainer, consultant and speaker in ethics and professional identity development, as well as a licensed Michigan attorney.

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