Written and Narrated by
Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin
“People tend to believe that they have good moral character, and therefore they are confident that when they face issues with moral dimensions they will make good choices. However, Cynthia Cooper, who was the whistleblower in the infamous WorldCom fraud, wrote that, “People do not wake up one day and say, ‘Today is the day I think I will start my life of crime.’ Instead, it is often a slippery slope we slowly lose our ethical footing one step at a time.” This process is what behavioral ethicists call “incrementalism.”
As an example, think about the Abu Ghraib prison site, and the mistreatment of some of the inmates there. A female soldier wrote: “In the beginning, you see someone naked and you see underwear on their head and you are like, ‘Oh, that is pretty bad — I cannot believe I just saw that.’ And then you go to bed and you come back the next day and you see something worse. ‘Well, it seems like the day before was not so bad.’”
This is the slippery slope at work. And if we are not careful we can easily go from minor transgressions in our workplace, such as taking a few office supplies home for personal use or lightly padding our expense account, to more serious transgressions.
Francesca Gino and Max Bazerman, who are psychologists at the Harvard Business School, refer to it as the “boiling frog syndrome.” It is said that if you throw a frog in a pot of boiling water, he will jump out. But if you place him in a pot of cool water and gradually turn up the heat, he will slowly boil to death. I do not think Gino and Bazerman actually experimented on frogs, but they observed humans, and found that we unconsciously lower the bar over time through small changes in ethicality.
Think about it: most multi-million dollar securities frauds start with executives fudging fairly small numbers but over time those numbers grow through incrementalism. An officer who was caught up in the Enron scandal later said, “You did it once, it smelled bad. He did it again, it did not smell bad.” That is incrementalism at work.”