Not Considering Facts is an Unethical Action
“Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it,” writes Elizabeth Kolbert after reviewing substantial scientific literature in her New Yorker article “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.” While Kolbert sticks to mainly to science, her talking points provide takeaways for unethical action in the workplace.
People are Irrational
We have heard the adage “first impressions are everything.” There is something to it. Thousands of psychological experiments have shown that once we form an impression of something, it is very hard to change. We assume that when a rational, reasonable person is confronted with facts, the person would accept them and modify their behavior. Not so. We as humans consistently fail to change our minds once we make them up, even in the face of iron-clad, irrefutable facts.
Irrational behavior impedes compliance programs. Just as we can disregard facts once we make up our minds, we can disregard the law when we engage in workplace behaviors. Both are irrational. Managers have sexually harassed their subordinates despite knowing it is wrong. Sophisticated executives understand securities laws, yet nevertheless knowingly engage in insider trading. Research has shown, time and time again, that simply presenting the law to people does not prevent them from breaking it. Not considering the law, even if done irrationally, is an unethical action.
There’s a reason for reason. Summarizing a theory developed by cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, Kolbert explains that reason developed to “resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.” Our biggest advantage as humans is not the opposable thumb, but our ability to cooperate. Reason helps cooperation because it helps generate sound judgments that we can all count on.
A problem arises when we rely on bad information that we believe is good. Workplace diversity provides an example. Let’s say our company is hiring, and we think someone in our network would be a good fit for the company. So, we recommend them and they get hired.
But the company’s hiring decision could be based on bad information. When used loosely, a good “fit” can be code for hiring or including someone who looks, talks, and thinks like we do. Considering the benefits of workplace diversity and the fact that the hiring decision in this scenario was based on personal values (as opposed to company values), this decision was probably based on bad information and not on reason. Yet it’s likely that everyone involved would believe they were using reason when they weren’t. Worse, they wouldn’t listen to anyone who told them they were wrong. Not considering more information is unethical.
And while it’s not a traditional “compliance” issue, diversity goes a long way to prevent bias, conflict, and misunderstandings (especially between managers and their subordinates) that have fostered claims of illegal sexual harassment and discrimination.
What to Do
The situation is not bleak as long as we are aware and conscientious. Kolbert mentions that if we “spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications” of our decisions, we would be in a much better spot. Possibly, if the hiring committee of the company knew enough about diversity to understand how fraught personal referrals and systematic discrimination are (instead of rationalizing the easier means of hiring and “culture being important”), it might force it to double check their hiring criteria. If we understand the effects of our actions (someone gets hurt), we’d be more inclined to think through our decision before making it (change the approach). This is ethical because it’s meeting a moral standard.
While it would be easy to recommend diversity training (which can have its problems) and inclusion, they are not silver bullets without the understanding that we, and the compliance programs we create for the workplace, can be flawed and need constant maintenance.
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