UNPACK: Outsourcing a Guilty Conscience

Experiments suggest that we are instinctively more lenient in our judgment of a person or an organization when an unethical action has been delegated to a third party—particularly when we have incomplete information about the effects of the outsourcing.

By Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel - Harvard Business Review

The vast majority of managers mean to run ethical organizations, yet corporate corruption is widespread. Part of the problem, of course, is that some leaders are out-and-out crooks, and they direct the malfeasance from the top. But that is rare. Much more often, we believe, employees bend or break ethics rules because those in charge are blind to unethical behavior and may even unknowingly encourage it.

Consider an infamous case that, when it broke, had all the earmarks of conscious top-down corruption. The Ford Pinto, a compact car produced during the 1970s, became notorious for its tendency in rear-end collisions to leak fuel and explode into flames. More than two dozen people were killed or injured in Pinto fires before the company issued a recall to correct the problem. Scrutiny of the decision process behind the model’s launch revealed that under intense competition from Volkswagen and other small-car manufacturers, Ford had rushed the Pinto into production. Engineers had discovered the potential danger of ruptured fuel tanks in preproduction crash tests, but the assembly line was ready to go, and the company’s leaders decided to proceed. Many saw the decision as evidence of the callousness, greed, and mendacity of Ford’s leaders—in short, their deep unethicality.

But looking at their decision through a modern lens—one that takes into account a growing understanding of how cognitive biases distort ethical decision making—we come to a different conclusion. We suspect that few if any of the executives involved in the Pinto decision believed that they were making an unethical choice. Why? Apparently because they thought of it as purely a business decision rather than an ethical one.

Taking an approach heralded as rational in most business school curricula, they conducted a formal cost-benefit analysis—putting dollar amounts on a redesign, potential lawsuits, and even lives—and determined that it would be cheaper to pay off lawsuits than to make the repair. That methodical process colored how they viewed and made their choice. The moral dimension was not part of the equation. Such “ethical fading,” a phenomenon first described by Ann Tenbrunsel and her colleague David Messick, takes ethics out of consideration and even increases unconscious unethical behavior.

What about Lee Iacocca, then a Ford executive VP who was closely involved in the Pinto launch? When the potentially dangerous design flaw was first discovered, did anyone tell him? “Hell no,” said one high company official who worked on the Pinto, according to a 1977 article in Mother Jones. “That person would have been fired. Safety wasn’t a popular subject around Ford in those days. With Lee it was taboo. Whenever a problem was raised that meant a delay on the Pinto, Lee would chomp on his cigar, look out the window and say ‘Read the product objectives and get back to work.’” READ MORE

Image: Pinocchio and the Judge, Image Credit: Carlo Chiostri and A. Bongini