Finding ways for managers to reduce cheating

绕不开的道德问题 The only way is ethics-书迷号

CORPORATE SCANDALS occur with depressing regularity, from the accounting misstatements at Enron in 2001 to fake bank accounts at Wells Fargo, uncovered in 2016. In June Wirecard, a German payments processor, revealed that €1.9bn ($2.3bn) was missing from its accounts. What was remarkable about the affair was that the company’s book-keeping had been the subject of sceptical articles in the Financial Times. Yet the initial reaction of BaFin, the German regulator, was to launch an investigation into the newspaper, not the firm.

It is clearly difficult for people to recognise when a business is heading off the rails. That can be just as true for managers within a business as for people outside it. Executives can be sideswiped by an unnoticed problem in an individual division or a subsidiary; not all scandals make it on to the front pages.

Outright malice is not always the cause. Ethical choices are rarely black or white and individuals are not very good at assessing the purity of their own motivations. In a new book about behavioural biases, “You’re About To Make A Terrible Mistake”, Olivier Sibony of HEC business school in Paris writes that “as soon as there is any ambiguity about a judgment…we reason in a way that is selective enough to serve our interests and yet plausible enough to convince others (and ourselves) that we are not intentionally distorting the facts.” Individuals’ choices are also governed by how others behave; people are more likely to break the speed limit if everyone else is doing so.
丑闻的起因并非都是彻头彻尾的恶意。道德抉择极少非黑即白,而且个体不太擅长评估自身动机的纯粹性。巴黎高等商学院的奥利维尔·西博尼(Olivier Sibony)在关于行为偏误的新书《你将要犯下一个可怕的错误》(You’re About To Make A Terrible Mistake)中写道:“只要一项判断存在模糊地带……我们的推理方式一方面会做足够严格的筛选来为我们的利益服务,同时还要听起来足够有道理来说服他人(以及我们自己)我们并没有在故意歪曲事实。”个人选择还受到他人行为的强烈影响:如果周围的人都在超速行驶,自己也更可能超速。

Philosophers call morally ambiguous decision-making within such internal and external constraints “bounded ethicality”. Inside companies, it can easily mean that a culture of cheating can spread quickly. A seminal paper* by academics at Columbia and Harvard business schools looked at how, in the light of this problem, companies might reduce cheating within their ranks.
哲学家把在这类内部和外部制约下做出道德上含混不明的决策称为“有限道德”(bounded ethicality)。在企业内部,它很容易导致舞弊文化迅速传播。哥伦比亚大学商学院和哈佛商学院的学者们发表的一篇开创性论文*探讨了企业如何可能针对这个问题来减少团队内部的舞弊行为。

Their first finding was that individuals are more likely to lie, or commit fraud, when they are set excessively difficult and specific goals. Bounded ethicality, the authors argue, can also operate at an unconscious level. Under pressure, people often do not efficiently analyse information that could otherwise keep them on the straight and narrow.

The problem is exacerbated by confirmation bias, a human tendency to seek out facts that back up their pre-existing preferences. Research has found that people given a specific performance target (to reach a 12% annual return over the investment horizon, for example) were more likely to overlook important information about the future performance of investment funds and excessively focus on past performance data.
确认偏误(confirmation bias)加剧了这个问题。它指的是人们往往会寻找事实来支持自己既有的倾向。研究发现,被设定了某个特定绩效目标(比如在整个投资期实现12%的年回报率)的人更可能忽略有关投资基金未来表现的重要信息,而过分盯牢历史绩效数据。

As a result, the authors suggest, “Organisations might decrease intentional unethical behaviour by defining their goals more broadly and by setting goals at levels that are perceived as fair and relatively attainable by employees.” Another tactic is for managers to signal clearly that ethical issues may arise, so that people take them into account when making decisions. In one study, drivers were found to be more honest in reporting their car mileage when they signed an ethics code of conduct at the top of a mileage form (before they entered the distance on the form) than at the bottom (after the figure had been recorded).

The Columbia and Harvard researchers conducted a test asking people to act as financial advisers and pick from a range of funds. One part of it used the raw data from funds operated by Bernie Madoff, convicted in 2009 for defrauding investors. The participants did not know the data came from a fraudulent fund. But they did see its high returns and the opaque way it operated. One group was simply asked to recommend a fund; another group was asked to consider which fund made them most suspicious before making their recommendation. The result of this intervention was to decrease the proportion of individuals recommending Mr Madoff’s funds to their clients from 68% to 51%.
哥伦比亚大学和哈佛大学的研究人员做了一项测试:请人们担任理财顾问,从一系列基金中挑选一个。测试的一部分使用了伯尼·麦道夫(Bernie Madoff)做过手脚的基金的原始数据,而麦道夫在2009年因欺骗投资者被定罪。受试者并不知道这些数据源自一个欺诈基金,但确实看到它回报很高而且运作不透明。研究人员请一组受试者直接推荐一个基金,而请另一组人在做出推荐之前想一想哪个基金让他们的操守最受质疑。在第二组中增加的这步干预使得向客户推荐麦道夫基金的人数比例从68%降到了51%。

This figure is still staggeringly high, of course. It might have been reduced further, the academics suggest, if participants could have asked more questions and got more information. Too often, people rush to judgment, which leads them to play down the risks they are taking and the corners they are cutting. And that means scandals are inevitable.

* “Reducing bounded ethicality: How to help individuals notice and avoid unethical behaviour,” by Ting Zhang, Pinar Fletcher, Francesca Gino and Max Bazerman
*“减少有限道德:如何帮助个人察觉和避免不道德行为”,作者:张婷(Ting Zhang,音译)、皮纳尔·弗莱彻(Pinar Fletcher)、弗朗西丝卡·吉诺(Francesca Gino)和马克思·巴泽曼(Max Bazerman)