Ethical Fading: Is It Happening Right Under Your Nose?

noethics[su_dropcap style=”flat”]M[/su_dropcap]ARTIN SHKRELLI, has been called the most hated man in America. CEO of a tiny company  Turing Pharmaceuticals, he had bought the lifesaving prescription drug Daraprim from its owner Impax Laboratories.

He promptly hiked the price 5,455% from $13.50 a pill to $750. He has since resigned from his job and been arrested on civil and criminal securities fraud charges.

Despite the widespread media coverage and disapproval, not much attention has been given to who sold him the drug in the first place and why?

Daraprim belonged to the more established Impax Laboratories, which decided it wasn’t profitable enough. Rather than raise the price and risk attracting seriously adverse headlines, Impax in effect, delegated a revised pricing decision to Shkreli.

Ethical fading: The inability to see that a situation requires an ethical judgement[su_spacer]

Impax’s decision is a typical example of ethical fading. Its executives apparently did not see their action as having an ethical dimension. Instead, they saw it as strategic, simply a good financial business decision.

The previous decades are littered with similar examples. In 2007 for instance, Merck sold off two cancer drugs to Ovation, a smaller pharma company. Like Shkreli’s Turing, Ovation promptly pushed the price into the stratosphere.

Merck managers too were blind to the ethical implications of their decision. Why did Merck not raise the price itself? Presumably because the company preferred headlines such as “Merck sells two drugs to Ovation” rather than “Merck increases cancer drug prices by 1000%.”

Yet both the Impax and Merck leaders were probably good people doing wrong.  By focusing solely on the short-term financial gains they lost sight of the wider ethical considerations. It reveals vividly how ethical fading can take it toll.

What is ethical fading?

It’s insidious, invisible and inside your company. Ethical fading sneaks into the work situation because people don’t even know they’re making an ethical choice.

It’s a psychological process and even been seen as part of a new study of Behavioural ethics. It involves good people acting unethically, having blind spots about what they are doing, and simply not seeing issues as having an ethical dimension.

Forget codes, rules, regulations, in house watch dogs, leadership exhortations and fancy IT monitoring systems. You simply cannot inoculate against ethical fading. It’s notoriously hard to detect, and frequently stems from unconscious drives.

Yet this seldom acknowledged phenomenon builds the road to hell–where prison may beckon, mega fines keep coming, and corporate reputations are damaged or even destroyed.

Some individuals who’ve travelled along this deadly route and lived to tell the tale, now profitably lecture on how and why they allowed ethical fading into their lives. Their revealing and highly personal stories tend to be dramatic, memorable and salutary.

Most bitterly regret what they did, and admit they paid a heavy personal price for making the wrong choice. Yet for all their efforts at warning others of their transgressions and what they’ve learned from it, ethical fading keeps happening.

So how does this form of corporate virus show itself? What really causes it, and for those leading on compliance, giving legal advice or promoting an ethical culture, how do you outsmart this devious and dangerous foe?

Losing sight of the ethical dimension

FORD: In the 1970s a potentially dangerous design flaw was found in the new Ford Pinto. Ford managers at the time experienced a large dose of ethical fading, seeing not an ethical issue but purely a financial one.

They concluded it was cheaper to pay any legal fees arising from the fault, than bothering to correct the design. The result was customer deaths and Ford ended up on the wrong side of serious fines, huge recall costs, legal damages and a big dent in its reputation.

GM: An almost identical situation of ethical fading arose three decades later at GM in 2005. The company had installed defective ignition switches in 2.6 million cars, which turned off the engine airbags and brakes at high speed.

Again GM managers succumbed to ethical fading, seeing the situation only as a financial one. It took a whole decade for GM to finally admit it had acted wrongly and in 2015 agreed to pay a fine of $900 million and suffered significant reputational damage.

NEWS OF THE WORLD: At first it was just a few reporters who relied on hacking into peoples’ mobile phones to scrape up a story. Later it grew into an acceptable way of working. NOW managers too only saw that the system produced publishable stories, but completely lost sign of the ethical dimension. The paper suffered the ultimate penalty and was shut down.

See also: Reputation: perception or reality, does it really matter?

Just about anyone can succumb to the deadly virus of ethical fading, not just business executives. For example, is George Osborne UK’s Chancellor suffering from a dose of ethical fading with his widely opposed recent plans for large scale benefit cuts? These would particularly hurt those with disabilities. In his apparent obsession with saving money, he seems to have lost sight the proposed cuts have an important ethical dimension.

The man in charge of the ministry dealing with pensions and benefits Ian Duncan Smith resigned, denouncing the £4bn planned cuts as “indefensible”. He also complained of pressure to “salami slice” welfare, saying the latest cuts were a “compromise too far” in a Budget that benefits higher earning taxpayers.

Noble though IDS tried to look, he is vulnerable to the accusation:

“This is a man who has presided over so much that has been damaging to the lives of so many people with disabilities. He’s taken so much away from people with disabilities. He’s suddently found a conscience now—I wonder where the conscience has been hiding for the past six years.”

–Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour party

First Know Your enemy

Ethical fading occurs when the ethical standards of a business erode. Because it’s a psychological process, it’s notoriously hard to detect. Like many life threatening diseases, the warning signs at first may be almost imperceptible.

The danger stems from people fooling themselves. For example, because they’ve something to gain they overlook a transgression, bend a rule to help a colleague, or overlook information that might hurt a client and so on.

Typically a manager will overlook unethical behaviour when the results seem good, and appear to help either themselves or the company. It’s not so much turning a blind eye as allowing personal biases to distort judgement.

What starts small, may gradually morph into something far more sinister. Few people actually set out to be unethical, yet find themselves enmeshed in the sticky tentacles of doing something wrong and somehow believing it’s alright.

To tackle ethical fading, leaders need to be armed in various ways, not just relying on others to check what’s going on, out of sight:

How the infection takes hold:

Bad performance metrics—leads wrong goal incentives and unintended consequences
Mutually beneficial—act because others unethical behaviour is advantageous to you
End justifies the means—there is a good outcome but regardless of unethical behaviour

Self Deception

That we may deceive ourselves seems at first rather far fetched. Yet it happens. For example those who fiddle their claims for expense often manage to persuade themselves that since everyone else is on the make, it’s alright for them to do it too. This is a sort of internal con game, in which the ethical aspects of a decision fade into the background–the moral implications lose focus.

Several psychological factors lie behind this sort of behaviour where employees can pursue their own interests while believing wrongly they’re still being ethical—keeping their moral principles intact:

Use of misleading language in which euphemisms are disguised stories we tell ourselves about our unethical actions.

Actions are renamed, decisions are re-labelled, justifications are rebranded. For example leaders feel better saying they’re “letting people go” rather than firing them, or “right sizing” rather than laying people off

The slippery slope experience when small steps ultimately add up to seriously unethical practices.

A company may pollute a river once or twice until this becomes routine and even seen as acceptable behaviour—the ethical dimension having faded into invisibility.  Or a company may count sales made as shipped before the the final deals are worked out, until this transforms into distorted sales reports and eventually full-blown deception and fraud.

Misunderstanding causal relationships Decision makers convince themselves they are directing others’ behaviour in a particular direction, only to find it results in something entirely different and unethical is happening.

A famous example is the Sears Auto Centre Scandal. Managers came to believe they were just changing the payment system to engineers with no ethical issue on the horizon. In practice incentives introduced actually promoted unethical behaviour in which the engineers deceived customers into accepting unnecessary and costly auto repairs.

Whether Self deception is really at the core of ethical fading, has yet to be fully proven. But it’s definitely an important sign to look out for:

Muting the forces behind ethical fading will take much more time than some of the solutions that have been previously offered but the effort will be well spent, producing long-lasting and more permanent results. 1

[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#F0F0F0 ” end_color=”#F0F0F0 ” border=”#BBBBBB” color=”#333333″]

10 Ways to reduce ethical fading

1 Raise ethical awareness, for example by building the ethical dimension into the entire decision making process

2 Promote greater self-knowledge and self awareness, for example help peoppe to think about personal values and beliefs

3 Manage stress, by supporting those facing ethical situations; for example using mindfulness

4 Integate ethics, build ethics into every step of the value chain

5 Avoid undue pressures, which undermine he company’s long term interests infacour of short-term gains

6 Gain perspective, give people time to review difficult situations and space to perceive things int a different way

7 Help decision makers understand the context, do they know the key people involved, what are their main goals?

8 Promote honest language, avoid euphemisms that prevent a sharp focus on ethics and what is right and wrong

9 Universal accountability, everyone becomes responsible for the firm’s ethical performance, responsibility is not sliced

10 Performance goals, ensure they’r resonable, and avoid pressurising people to meet them by acting unethically[/message][su_spacer]


1] A Tenbrunsel and D Mesick, Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behaviour, Social Justice Research Vol 17 June 2004

Filabi and J. Lager, Professionalism and Ethical Leadership From General Counsel’s Suite, March 17, 2016

Ethical Pitfalls, American Psychological Association 2012

Bazerman and A. Tenbrunsel, Stumbling Into Bad Behavior, April 20, 2011 New York Times

Bazerman and A. Tenbrunsel. Ethical Breakdowns Harvard Business Review, April 2011

A.Tenbrunsel, and D. Messick, Ethical Fading: the role of self deception

Wechsler, Blind Spots III — Ethics Training, Ethics Fading, and Ethical Reasoning, City Ethics Organisation, April 6th, 2011

Guillé, n Why Good People Do Bad Things and What We Can Do About It, IESE Business School, Business Ethics, Blog Network, 19/12/2013

Ethical Fading, World Wide Words, 2011    

©Andrew Leigh


Andrew Leigh
Andrew Leigh
ANDREW is author of Ethical Leadership, (Kogan Page 2013) and writes regularly at He believes business needs to re-discover the importance of ethics and integrity. As an expert on leadership Andrew writes regularly on ways to help managers be more effective as ethical leaders. His blog stays close to the zeitgeist with a unique perspective on many aspects of leading organisations ethically, including compliance, and engagement. Andrew is a joint founder in 1989 of Maynard Leigh Associates ( pioneers of using ideas from theatre in business. He was a hands-on practising manager for many years in the public sector, ending his time on the front line running a division with over 1000 staff. Andrew also spent several years as a business and financial journalist, including time at The Observer newspaper. He has written over 20 books on management, leadership teams and so on. Originally trained as an economist, he is a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. He is available for speaking engagements, interviews, feature articles and consultancy.

CHECK FOR TICKETS / JOIN OUR WAITING LIST! It's not a virtual event. It's not a conference. It's not a seminar, a meeting, or a symposium. It's not about attracting a big crowd. It's not about making a profit, but rather about making a real difference. LEARN MORE HERE