What is a Slippery Slope and How to Avoid One?

What is a Slippery Slope and How to Avoid One?

Tanhieya Ghosh, Director - Legal & Compliance - India & Frontier Markets Plus, Medtronic, 0

Have you ever wondered why a good person does an unethical act? A research study of ordinary people, like you and me, over an extended period of time reveals how easy it is for ‘good’ people, starting with an initial small, self-justified deception, to quickly justify bigger and bigger indiscretions, thus falling down the ‘slippery slope’ to major unethical behavior.

Most of us think of ourselves as ethical. And yet, major corporate frauds and unethical behavior is quite widespread and rampant. Answer lies in a concept known as slippery slope.

There are many examples of the ethical slippery slope such as the case of Lance Armstrong where he lied for years about taking performance enhancing drugs. The recent case in the corporate world of Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of the now defunct healthcare technology company, Theranos is a classic example. In the corporate world, the ethical slippery slope can stifle one's career and do harm to that person's reputation. It begins with the first small act of deception that people justify to themselves. They convince themselves that the small act was relatively harmless, and that ‘everybody else does it’ or ‘this is the way business is done here’ or ‘this is what it takes to survive’ or ‘it is just for this one time’. Unfortunately, this rationalization process is then applied to the next act of deception, which is just a bit bigger. Over time, people continue to rationalize their behavior as unethical hence slowly becomes more significant. Through this slippery slope of bigger and bigger wrongdoing, the individuals have become ‘morally disengaged. They have, in other words, disconnected the self-regulation mechanism that previously prevented them from engaging in deceptive acts. They simply don’t care anymore that they are unethical.

With time, people justify incrementally bigger indiscretions; however, they will not take a leap from a small act of deception to a significant unethical behavior. The slippery slope is thus is at the heart of the danger; remove this slope (i.e. do not allow the small indiscretions to become incrementally bigger) and people will stop engaging in unethical actions.

The key to keeping people off the slope is instilling a ‘prevention focus.’ A prevention focus, which is an emphasis on safety, caution and clear awareness of the laws and rules, stands in sharp contrast to the ‘promotion focus’ — the willingness to take reckless risks, having a short term focus and embracing change, without application of a holistic review.

Avoiding Slippery Slope
Tone at the Top Matters:
Leaders play a vital part in whether employees
and managers in their companies start down the slippery slope. In some cases, bad leadership can actually steepen the slippery slope.If there is unethical behavior at the top, for example, it naturally becomes easier for lower level managers to justify their own unethical behavior.

Leaders must also be careful not to reward unethical behavior — for example, by setting unrealistic or high performance goals or aggressive time lines that encourage or require individuals to reach these goals through unethical means. In this type of aggressive environment, any call to ethics soon fades away.

As an individual, remember, you have a choice to make every day and every choice that you make has an implication. Be the voice to create the culture that you wish to see and work in. Be an ethical leader

Goals Need to Complement Each Other:
For example, companies need to sell product but they also need those sales to be conducted in an ethical manner. And if goals are not perfectly aligned, ethical goals must take priority over others. For example if we consider airlines industry, whose flights have two goals: to be on time and to be safe. When safety becomes an issue, however, it takes precedence over timeliness — without exception.
As a company, always review your incentive schemes, discounts schemes and other monetization schemes to understand whether, even unintentionally, you are not encouraging bad behavior.

Some recommendations on how to avoid going down a slippery slope to bad behavior as an individual:
Listen to Your Instincts:
Never disregard the voice of conscience. Pay heed to the uncomfortable feeling when something does not feel right or you are being asked to do something that makes you restless and uncomfortable.

Look for Support/Commonality:
Approach someone within the company that you believe has good moral compass and whose values will stand strong in the face of bad behavior. Bounce off with them for an independent, neutral perspective.

Collect Vital Information:
Collect relevant information to fully understand the situation and then make your own judgement. Use your reporting channels and whistleblower line to seek assistance.

No one is infallible, and any company can fall into ethical lapses. That’s why leaders at all levels should consider taking a more proactive stance to guard against such behavior. As an individual, remember, you have a choice to make every day and every choice that you make has an implication. Be the voice to create the culture that you wish to see and work in. Be an ethical leader.