Moral Disengagement in Organizations

In a recent interview with Barbara Walters of ABC News, Bernie Madoff didn’t have much concern for the victims of his massive fraud, though was deeply worried about the impact of his actions on his family. He said in the interview – “I understand why clients hate me. The gravy train is over. I can live with that.” He added -“The average person thinks I robbed widows and orphans. I made wealthy people wealthier.” Even after imprisonment, he is morally disengaged. He justifies that defrauding the wealthy is okay and not that big a crime.

How does a normally functioning human being become morally disengaged to an extent that all crimes done by him or her appear rational? The thinking is that the end justifies the means and criminal behavior is not a big deal. Let us explore the impact of moral disengagement on human behavior and its impact on organizations.

In the paper “Moral Disengagement In The Perpetration Of Inhumanities” the author Albert Bandura states – “Moral agency is manifested in both the power to refrain from behaving inhumanely and the proactive power to behave humanely. Moral agency is embedded in a broader socio-cognitive self theory encompassing self-organizing, proactive, self-reflective and self-regulatory mechanisms rooted in personal standards linked to self-sanctions.” Hence, the control for moral behavior rests with the individual. The negative self-sanctions for behavior that contravenes a person’s personal ethics and values stops them from behaving inhumanely. Even in situations when there is sufficient inducement or anticipated reward for doing so.

However, if the self-sanctions are missing or a person does not feel self-condemnation for inhumane behavior towards others, the person will willingly participate in inhumane activities. To ignore self-sanctions, a person gives himself/ herself a moral justification for the inhumane act. They tell the story to themselves that they are acting as moral agents to protect some higher goal by harming others. This is evident in case of riots and religious wars in society. To establish supremacy of their religion or race, they justify harm to people of other race and/ or religion.

In organizational context, it is evident when one victim is bullied by a group of employees for belonging to a certain race, religion, gender, sexuality etc. In such cases, inhumane behavior becomes socially acceptable.

Moreover, besides the aspect on which a person has justified inhumane behavior, a person can still be morally engaged in other aspects. Mr. Bandura states – “Selective activation and disengagement of personal control permits different types of conduct by persons with the same moral standards under different circumstances.” Madoff’s thought process exemplifies it. He is concerned on the suffering of his family members but not of his victims.

Additionally, people are mostly unaware of the changes in their thought pattern and behavior. They start with mild aggression or a small crime and these pricks their conscience. However, gradually they get used to doing inappropriate things and harming others without any self-criticism or loss of self- esteem. The ruthlessness increases and with it the atrocities on the victims. Once this sets in, it is difficult for them to stop without some external intervention as morally they have justified their acts.

The question remains – how are normal people motivated to do atrocities to others? Here are some ways mentioned in the research paper that people use to perpetuate inhumane behavior.

1.    Spreading tales

It is the communication skills of the charismatic leaders who are morally disengaged that influences public to compromise on moral behavior. Hitler’s speeches roused many to conduct the worst possible inhumane acts. Under normal circumstances, the same people may not have done any crime.

The story used can influence many. For example, in the corporate world rumors are spread about employees who maybe on the verge of finding senior management involvement in frauds. The unethical team to damage the reputation of ethics officers and risk managers does a defamation campaign. The facts get buried under the false story and rumors. The ethics officers are portrayed as liars.

2.    Use of twisted logic

Under normal circumstances, a person is unlikely to indulge in inhumane acts towards others especially in public view. Besides self-condemnation, the person will be scared of society’s judgment and boycott. However, to influence a group to conduct a crime, one can give the logic that achieving the goal through legal means is not possible. This logic is used in investigations, where suspects basic human rights are contravened by the police on the pretext that suspect will not disclose the truth on verbal interrogation.

In the corporate world, corruption and bribery are prime examples of it. Many a times organizations consider corruption is justified for conducting business and earn profits even if it means risking lives. As seen in the Common Wealth Games fraud, a bridge collapsed. A few passerby’s died and some were injured. Reason being the material used by the construction company was sub-quality.

Organizations also pay bribes and grease payments using the same logic. According to them, the work or project will get delayed if the organization obtains the required permissions through proper channels. A few organizations in India are also known to threaten physical harm to government officers and their own employees to get their work done and avoid legal channels. Justification is, why bother with legal contracts or proper means. Here the end justifies the means.

3.    Using historical incidents

The saying goes- you are not guilty unless you are caught. This logic is used frequently for influencing people to use inhumane methods to achieve goals. If in a previous situation, illegal means were used to achieve a goal, and the team was successful, the same methods will be used again.

In such situations, the assessment of the situation is biased and the conflicting realities of the situation are ignored. The domino effect of a crime conducted repeatedly in an open social environment is huge, and prone to miscalculations. However, in such situations the sociological impact and the gravity of the situation are misinterpreted.

In corporate world, this occurs when deviant organization culture sets in. For example, X person has conducted a crime and Y is innocent. However, X is not punished and Y is punished. This gives encouragement to wrong doers that they will get away with criminal behavior and the victim will face the brunt of it. If this management laxity continues, slowly more and more staff will turn towards criminal activities. In the long run, the staff will start showing criminal behavior towards the management itself. Hence, the management gets trapped in its own negligence.

4.    Displacing responsibility

The reasoning given by perpetrators of inhumane behavior is- “I am not responsible for it, the senior sanctioned it, and I am just following orders.”  In such situations, the group members will not take responsibility for their inhumane and detrimental behavior towards others as long as some authority figure takes ownership for it. The members will ignore the suffering and harm caused by them to the victim.

Bandura states- “the greater the legitimacy and closeness of the authority issuing injurious commands, the higher the level of obedient aggression. The sanctioning of harmful conduct in everyday life differs in two important ways from the direct authorizing system examined by Milligram. Responsibility is rarely assumed that openly. Only obtuse authorities would leave themselves accusable of authorizing harmful acts. They usually invite and support harmful conduct in insidious ways for personal and social reasons. Through surreptitious sanctioning practices they can shield themselves from social condemnation should the courses of action go awry. They also have to live with themselves. Sanctioning by indirection enables them to protect against loss of self-respect for authorizing human cruelty.”

 Hence, in such situations the victim suffers while the authority figure is removed from direct contact. Therefore, the authority figure doesn’t suffer from self-recriminations for sanctioning humane cruelty and the members who execute the cruel behavior displace their responsibility to the authority figure. This generally takes place in the corporate world when authority figures sanction serial bullying or stalking of a victim to achieve personal goals.

5.    Defusing responsibility

When a number of people are involved in a crime, then no one person takes responsibility for the crime. Each person is doing one small negative act on the victim and the cumulative total impact of the negative actions is nobody’s responsibility. This is primarily illustrated by the cyber bullying that has become prevalent in the present world. Last year a couple of school kids committed suicide due to cyber bullying.

Secondly, diffusion of responsibility is easier on internet as it allows anonymous ids and one can attack the victim through these anonymous ids. Since the real individuals behind the attack cannot be easily identified, they are emboldened to degrade the victim. They may not make the same statements on the victims face since then it amounts to publicly accepting perpetuating heinous crimes.

In organizations when an employee is mobbed the responsibility is diffused since each employee is doing one small act. If the mobbing continues for a long time, then most participants get immune to their own negative actions, suffer no guilt or remorse and consider it an operational function. The activities get routine and their morality is not questioned. Under group responsibility, people are crueller, sometimes competition sets in as to who can be more cruel and none of the members hold themselves personally accountable for their actions.

6.    Disregard or distortion of consequences

If you hear any abuser, be it a perpetrator of domestic violence or anything else, the victim is said to be weak. In cases of psychological abuse and torture, disregarding consequences of one’s behavior becomes easier. The perpetrator states the victim is – making it all up, is attention seeking, a crybaby, can’t deal with the adult world, psychologically weak, can’t deal with pain etc. To distort the consequences of their own actions, abusers give these excuses.

This way they minimize the impact of their own actions so that they don’t have to feel guilty. If minimization doesn’t work, then stories are told to discredit the victim’s pain and suffering. It is easier to harm when the injuries are not visibly evident that is why psychological abuse is so prevalent.

In organizations, as per report 50% of the staff experiences bullying and 5-10% are so deeply impacted that some commit suicide and some never go back to work again.

This can become a wider problem as seen in the financial crises and mortgage foreclosure problems in US. The bankers discarded the fact that due to their negligence a number of their customers had become homeless due to no fault of theirs. Even in the financial crises, bankers failed to acknowledge that their high-risk taking resulted in the crises. The financial crises resulted in job losses of thousands but the perpetrators didn’t consider themselves guilty. On the other hand, a few rewarded themselves with big bonuses.

7.    Dehumanization

The last and the worst method to use are to dehumanize the victim. It is difficult to mistreat friends, neighbors and colleagues, as one knows them. There will be some level of self- reproach and condemnation. However, it is easier to mistreat a stranger since an unknown person doesn’t generate an empathetic response.

Therefore, it is easier to brutalize people when they are viewed as sub-human forms and are degraded completely. If a person is disposed of their humanness, and equated to an animal, then self-censure doesn’t get activated. Hence, the aggression is escalated and continues unabated.

In corporate world, this occurs in autocratic and bureaucratic organizations where the power holders or senior management considers their juniors as less than human. They believe that juniors are there to obey orders and do as they are told. The juniors have no personal desires, life and rights. In such situations, people with authority use coercive power since they cannot be held accountable. As Gareth Morgan in his book “Images of an Organization’ says- that some organizations have a worse culture than Soviet KGB.

To illustrate, Maruti is facing a labor strike, though previously it was known as an employee friendly organization. One of key complaints of workers is that they get just 30 minutes for lunch and two breaks of 7 minutes each for tea/coffee. They are complaining that in an 8-hour shift they sometimes don’t have the time to use the washroom also. Maruti management brought in the changes to increase production of cars at the existing facility.


Bandura says that – “Justified abuse can have more devastating human consequences than acknowledged cruelty. Mistreatment that is not clothed in righteousness makes the perpetrator rather than the victim blameworthy. But when victims are convincingly blamed for their plight, they may eventually come to believe the degrading characterizations of themselves” This is horrifying and unless the victim has a high self-esteem, s/he might believe that they deserve to be treated in a sub-human manner.

Risk managers and ethics officers can find themselves as victims as they fight for what is right and just. They are sometimes punished for their convictions and principles by management. Some bend under the social pressure and some deal with the conflict.

However, viewing it from different lenses, moral disengagement is a huge problem for the corporate world. Self-sanctions and individual moral control appears to be the strongest restrainers for inhumane acts. Hence, we must remember C. P. Snow words when obeying orders –

More hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than in the name of rebellion.”


  1. Bernie Madoff ‘Can Live With’ Fraud Victims’ Anger, But Not Family Scorn, He Tells Barbara Walters Exclusively

2.  Moral Disengagement In The Perpetration Of Inhumanities by Albert Bandura, Stanford University