Blind forces: Ethical infrastructures and moral disengagement in organizations

Abstract

This review integrates research regarding organizations’ ethical infrastructure and moral disengagement to illustrate the
complicated relationship between these constructs. We argue that employee perceptions of strong ethical infrastructures may
reduce individuals’ tendencies to rationalize and engage in clearly self-interested unethical behaviors, but might motivate
moral disengagement about other behaviors by tapping into members’ desires to preserve a positive self-image and reduce cognitive
burden. This research builds upon scholars’ understanding that “good” people can be morally blind and engage in unsavory acts
without awareness of the unethical nature of their actions, and suggests that even in organizations with formal and informal
systems prioritizing ethics, unethical decisions and behaviors may be rationalized and go unnoticed. Finally, we discuss theoretical
and methodological implications—notably that scholars should be concerned about conclusions drawn from employee perceptions
about the ethicality of the organizational context, and supplement perceptual measures with direct observation and more objective
assessment.

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