Preparing for a crisis is like purchasing good insurance; you hope you’ll never need it, but if the time comes that you do, it makes all the difference. While the need for preparation is not surprising, there are some surprising yet straightforward steps that can make the difference between ethical and unethical behavior when a crisis hits.
The first step involves learning skills for crisis prevention and management. Necessary skills include “perspective taking in relation to stakeholder needs, managing emotions and making decisions under pressure, communicating and facilitating trust development and fostering a learning culture” (Simola, 2014, p. 486). Strengthening these skills and considering the ethical implications of your actions in advance can put you a step ahead when the additional curveballs of a crisis are thrown your way.
One of those major curveballs is stress. Naturally, crises can be quite stressful, and stress can have an interesting impact on our ethical judgement. While stress does not necessarily lead to worse decisions in general, it does have “a negative effect on the establishment of a moral intent” (Selart & Johansen, 2011, p. 138). Stress can cause ethical slips like covering up mistakes, cutting corners, and lying to stakeholders both inside and outside the organization (Selart & Johansen, 2011). Developing a high stress tolerance can help, and may be an imperative in certain professions like surgeons and firefighters (Selart & Johansen, 2011), but leaders need not rely solely on their followers’ stress tolerance in times of crisis. There is more they can do to tip the scales in favor of ethical behavior, and it has to do with how employees are rewarded.
It should go without saying that organizations must avoid rewarding unethical behavior, but some that have inadvertently done so have found themselves with ethical scandals on their hands. Certainly, an organization must “modify its reward structure if it might be creating an incentive for staff to engage in unethical behavior” (Pendse, 2011, p. 276). However, the rewards that can affect ethical decision making can be either material or immaterial, and as simple as feedback (Selart & Johansen, 2011).
Feedback on the work an employee has accomplished can be viewed as a type of reward, and in fact, “a lack of feedback on accomplishments would make people disappointed and believing in their right to compensate themselves in other and sometimes unethical ways” (Selart & Johansen, 2011, p. 135). The stressors of a lack of feedback, poor teamwork, and a sense of powerlessness reflect a lack of rewards that incline employees toward unethical actions (Selart & Johansen, 2011). These types of rewards may not be in the front of leaders’ minds during times of crisis, but should be considered in order to ensure that the whole organization responds in the most ethical manner.
Navigating today’s increasingly complex business environment requires the insurance of crisis preparation. Teaching crisis management skills is the first step, with stress management building on top. Furthermore, properly rewarding employees can both shape and reinforce ethical behavior. Putting these actions together, organizations can weather the storm of a crisis to find the sun on the other side.
Selart, M. & Johansen, S.T. (2011, March). Ethical decision making in organizations: The role of leadership stress. Journal of Business Ethics, 99(2), 129-143. Retrieved from https://link-springer-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/article/10.1007%2Fs10551-010-0549-3
Simola, S. (2014). Teaching corporate crisis management through business ethics education. European Journal of Training and Development, 38(5), 483-503. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/docview/2085673585/fulltextPDF/561AA30472A74A9FPQ/1?accountid=13158
Pendse, S.G. (2012, May). Ethical hazards: A motive, means, and opportunity approach to curbing corporate unethical behavior. Journal of Business Ethics, 107(3), 265-279. Retrieved from https://www-jstor-org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/stable/41476249?pq-origsite=summon&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents