Fraud in the Workplace: Building an Ethical Organization Environment
Social Media Risks in the Workplace

What is the Ethical-Person Organization fit?

Aligning Individual Ethical Behavior with Organization Culture

In my previous two blogs I talked about Building an Ethical Workplace Environment and Character and Leadership in the Workplace. This is the third blog in the series that has examined organization culture. In this blog I look at the concept of the ethical person-organization fit upon the person-organization exchange, within each of the four potential fit options. It may sound more complicated and too academic for you but it is quite basic. The ethical-person organization exchange refers to how the ethics of an individual in an organization fits with the ethics of the organization. The fit has many implications for building an ethical workplace environment.

Mary Jo Burchard of Regent University explains what she calls “the Ethical Dissonance Model” to illustrate the interaction between the individual and the organization, based on the person-organization ethical fit at various stages of the contractual relationship in each potential ethical fit scenario. The model is complex, so I will restrict my explanation to the basics of the person-organization interchange and its implications for ethical behavior within organizations. This is an important consideration because the ethics of an individual influences the values that one brings to the workplace and decision making, while the ethics (through its culture) of an organization influences that behavior.

Of the four potential fit options, two possess high person-organization fit: (1) high organizational ethics, high individual ethics (High-High), and (2) low organizational ethics, low individual ethics (Low-Low); and two possess low person-organization fit: (1) high organizational ethics, low individual ethics (High-Low) and (2) low organizational ethics, high individual ethics (Low-High).

Imagine that you are working on a project and your boss directs you to do something that you believe is unethical. Maybe it is to fudge the numbers to make the project look more successful than it is. If the organizational fit is Low-High, you have a problem. Your ethical standards are higher than the organization you work for. How will you deal with the dilemma?

In this case we have what is referred to as ‘ethical dissonance.’ Ethical dissonance is the psychological tension between an employee and the organization when the ethical fit is not a good one. When your standards of behavior differ from the organization’s standards, you will feel uncomfortable and torn between doing what you know is the right thing to do as opposed to what may be expected of you by the organization.

The underlying problem in this case is a difference in values. The individual values honesty while the organization values loyalty. It expects you to be a team player and go along with the fudged numbers. Given the Low-High fit, you will be under a significant amount of pressure to ‘take one for the team.’ However, once you compromise your beliefs, it won’t be long before you begin the slide down the proverbial ethical slippery slope.

A reduction in job satisfaction is likely if an employee striving to be ethical perceives little top management support for ethical behavior, an unfavorable ethical climate in the organization, and/or little association between ethical behavior and job success.  Once this ethical dissonance is discovered, the likelihood of employee turnover rises.

Sims and Keon found a significant relationship between the ethical rift between one’s personal decisions and the perceived unwritten/informal policies of the organization, and the individual’s level of comfort within the organization. The greater the difference between the decisions that the individual made and the decisions perceived as expected and reinforced by the organization, the greater levels of discomfort the individual would feel, and the more likely the individual would be to report these feelings of discomfort.

I have been a strong proponent of ethics training in organizations. One mistake organizations make is to focus attention on the code of conduct and not on the person-organization ethical fit. This is essential to bring each dimension into line with the other, especially if the fit is High-Low. An organization must be able to control the actions of its employees and not let a rogue employee go ‘off the reservation’ and cause undue harm to the organization and its reputation.

Creating an ethical organization environment is a process that aims to have a High-High fit and one that brings about ethical awareness, expected standards of behavior, and an action plan to ensure the organization’s values form the foundation for all decisions. Incorporating the ethical fit into ethics training can help to align organizational and individual goals and motivation for behavior.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 18, 2013