A psychological perspective to unethical behaviour

A psychological perspective to unethical behaviour

The question as to why people engage in unethical behaviour is a difficult question for most people to answer. What is it that drives people to act unethically? This is the question that I will try to answer in this article.

When an individual violates societal moral norms they are classified as having acted unethically. Some of the common unethical conduct include: lying, corruption, cheating, theft, fraud, sabotage, and misrepresentation in financial reports. However you need to note that there are some behaviours that are unethical but not illegal.

Research suggest that one in three employees steal at work (Hefter, 1986). The average base rate of employees who steal at work is at 42% in retail. (Werner, Jones & Steffy, 1989). In a study by a security firm, 500 shoppers were chosen at random and followed. One in 12 was observed shoplifting (Farrell & Ferrara, 1985). Most people think that people steal because of deprivation or they need money. Research on employee theft does not support the theory that workers steal, in general, because they need the money (Murphy, 1993). As an example, three out of four shoplifters can afford to buy the merchandise they have taken, and many are even caught carrying enough money to pay for the lifted items (Francis, 1979).

To understand what drives unethical behaviour you need to understand what drives human behaviour. The reason why people engage in unethical conduct can be traced to their personality. There are some personality traits that predispose individuals to behave unethically.
People who score very low on the Honest – Humility scale tend to engage in unethical conduct than those who score high on this dimension. Such people will flatter others to get what they want, are inclined to break rules for personal profit, are motivated by material gain, and feel a strong sense of self-importance.

What is more revealing is that certain people who have a combination of various personality traits are even more prone to behaving unethically. People who are low on the dimensions of Honesty – Humility and Emotionality often behave unethically. People may be greedy and not fear much about it. They are hungry for money and power, and their appetite for such things is not deterred by the risk of physical harm. They take the biggest chances in pursuit of fame and fortune. Another category is of those who are low on Honest – Humility, and low on Agreeableness. This category is greedy and sneaky. People in this category when they want something they will exhibit fake flattery and fake friendliness.

The other category is Low Honest – Humility and low Conscientiousness. They may also have delinquency tendencies. They are strongly tempted to take what they want from others, whether by force or by fraud. They lack self-control to inhibit these urges. They have a tendency to commit immoral and antisocial acts without remorse. Then there are those who are Low Honest – Humility and High Conscientiousness. People in this category are prone to white collar crime. If they find a way to commit such crimes with low risk of being caught they will take advantage of it. The category with Low Honest – Humility and Low Openness to Experience is interested in money and status and not much else. They judge others mainly on the basis of their wealth and prestige. They are exploitative and find it hard to relate to those whose backgrounds are different from their own.

Research has shown that at work, Honesty–Humility has been found to be negatively related to all kinds of counterproductive or delinquent behaviours, such as counterproductive work behaviour (sexual harassment, and unethical leadership (De Vries and others, 2012). A study in 2015 found that the four most important variables in predicting workplace unethical behaviour were Honesty – Humility (34.1% of the total explained variance), ethical culture (16.4%), Conscientiousness (14.3%), and employee surveillance (9.6%) – Reinout E. de Vries, Jean-Louis van Gelder Personality and Individual Differences 86 (2015) 112–116. Workplace delinquency including unethical conduct should be more likely to take place when people low in Honesty–Humility (i.e., high motivation for crime) are part of a work setting that lacks an ethical culture and which is characterised by low levels of employee surveillance. It is important to note that the same studies above found a weak or zero relationships between age, gender, and education level and unethical choices.

Given the above, the best way to reduce unethical behaviour is to screen people at entry when they are about to join your organisation. Training will not help when you have to hire people who have personality defects that predispose them to unethical conduct.

Memory Nguwi is an Occupational Psychologist, Data Scientist, Speaker, & Managing Consultant- Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd a management and human resources consulting firm. Phone +263 4 481946-48/481950/2900276/2900966 or email: or visit our website at

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