Organizations Appear More Unethical than Individuals

Original Paper

Abstract

Both individuals and organizations can (and do) engage in unethical behaviors. Across six experiments, we examine how people’s ethical judgments are affected by whether the agent engaging in unethical action is a person or an organization. People believe organizations are more unethical than individuals, even when both agents engage in identical behaviors (Experiments 1–2). Using both mediation (Experiments 3a–3b) and moderation (Experiment 4) analytical approaches, we find that this effect is explained by people’s beliefs that organizations produce more harm when behaving unethically, even when they do not, as well as people’s perceptions that organizations are relatively more blameworthy agents. We then explore how these judgments manifest across different kinds of organizations (Experiment 5) as well as how they produce discrepant punishments following ethically questionable business activities (Experiment 6). Although society and the law often treat individuals and organizations as equivalent, people believe for-profit organizations’ behaviors are less ethical than identical individual behaviors. We discuss the ethical implications of this discrepancy, as well as additional implications concerning reputation management, punishment, and signaling in organizational contexts.

Keywords

Corporate personhood Punishment Organizations 

Notes

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors. All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of an institutional a research committee and with the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants in these experiments.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Stanford Graduate School of BusinessStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

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