Moral compass can shift depending on organizational role, expectations

We tend to think of personal morality—our intrinsic sense of right and wrong—as immovable. Grounded in bedrock.

But a new study suggests that moral judgment can shift dramatically depending on the organizational role we play at the moment.

“Many occupations are actually a combination of different roles, each with a different set of expected behaviors,” says study co-author Scott Reynolds, a business ethics professor at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Reynolds found that a variety of subtle—often imperceptible—cues can trigger a person’s identification with one role over another in a given occupation. That shift can guide how a person responds to an ethical dilemma.

Conflicting roles, conflicted people

For the study, Reynolds collaborated with Keith Leavitt and Pauline Schilpzand of Oregon State University, Christopher Barnes of Virginia Tech, and Sean Hannah of Wake Forest. The researchers examined two occupations that encompass starkly contrasting—even competing—roles.

Engineering project managers are both engineer and business person. Army medics are both soldier and doctor.

Professionals in the first category must constantly juggle the demands and expectations of engineering, with its focus on safety, and management, with its focus on getting the job done quickly. In the study, a group of engineer-managers were asked to recount a time that they behaved as a typical engineer, manager, or both. Then they were posed an ethical dilemma: should US firms engage in “gifting” to gain a foothold in a new market? Though this practice violates federal laws, more than 50 percent of those who identified as managers said such a practice might be acceptable, compared to just 13 percent of those who identified as engineers.

A second experiment focused on US Army medics who routinely juggle the care-giving expectations of a doctor with the warrior expectations of a soldier. The researchers posed a series of moral dilemmas to 128 medics. Embedded in these dilemmas was the subtlest of cues: a faint watermark on the questionnaire portraying a silhouette either of a soldier or a Red Cross logo. Those who read the moral dilemmas on pages bearing the Red Cross watermark identified as doctor over soldier, and were far less willing to put a price on human life.

Significantly, the medics and managers were unaware of the cues that were leading them to make very different moral choices.

“We found that, as people struggle with these dual-role positions, they tend to find themselves teetering between the two identities,” Reynolds says. “It’s the little elements of context that can subtly, imperceptibly shape which set of prescriptions are going to dictate the behavior in that situation.”

How to get the right ethical response

Reynolds explains that most occupations are dichotomies of two or more roles, adding another degree of difficulty to moral decision making. But organizations can help their employees navigate duel identities and difficult decisions.

  1. First, organizations should be aware of the multiple roles employees may be juggling, and make sure that they have the correct understanding of what is expected of them in different situations. “Engineers and managers, doctors and soldiers—each of these occupations has very high ideals. Taken by themselves, they generate a greater good,” Reynolds says. “It’s when they come into conflict that we run into problems.”
  2. Second, managers need to understand how even subtle contextual cues can affect the ethical behavior of their employees, who may be teetering between one or more professional roles. Reynolds points to an earlier study, in which the mere introduction of a briefcase in a meeting made team members behave more competitively. By comprehending and controlling these cues, managers can elicit the appropriate moral response to a given situation.
  3. Finally, organizations should foster a work environment that promotes open discussion of the moral conflicts that arise because of dual-identity occupations. “Organizational training can play a role,” Reynolds says. “But even more important is the culture. Do employees feel free to talk about the challenges of multiple roles? Or do they feel like they’re expected to work it out on their own?”

“The Universalistic and Particularistic Prescriptions of Occupational Identities: Lenses for Situated Moral Judgment” is forthcoming in the Academy of Management Journal.