Top 5 Ways to Ruin Your Reputation as an Ethical Leader

By Brett Dinovi, M.A., BCBA

CEO, Brett DiNovi & Associates

When leaders put profits before people, ethical transgressions are often inevitable. There is no shortage of this in the corporate world recently. Enron. Wells Fargo. Volkswagen, and now United Airlines with its “Not So Friendly Skies”. The following are my top 5 ways unethical behaviors can ruin a leader’s reputation:

  • Putting Profits Before People: David Dao, who suffered a concussion and broken nose and lost two front teeth in the incident last Sunday, was forcibly removed from a flight to make way for a United crew member. This airline purposefully overbooked the seats and then physically forced a passenger to give up his seat. It is important to set goals and reinforce performance that attain these goals, however the reinforcement cannot stop at simply meeting the goal. Designing contingencies of reinforcement for ethical behaviors that achieve these goals is of utmost importance. In other words, the process of achieving these results can be more important than the outcomes.

Leaders often fail to realize that not all departments in an organization need to be as profitable as others. In fact, some departments can lose money while providing a pipeline for future referrals that assist the organization as a whole to become more profitable. Or, the less profitable area of the company can provide a continuum of services that improves the quality and scope of the more lucrative parts of the business. When an organization values its bottom line more than its employees, the best people exit, leaving behind those who are too mediocre or complacent to find a better position. The result is a culture of underperformance and low morale due to unethical leadership.

  • Bullying Others in the Workplace: One of the most comprehensive workplace studies on this was conducted in 2007 by the WBI. 35% of American workers have experienced bullying firsthand. It found that 62% of bullies are men, however to my surprise women bullies targeted women in 80% of cases. 72% of bullies are actually the target’s boss. Companies that use a tool that obtains frequent, immediate, and reciprocal feedback can sniff out bullies and victims to maintain an ethical workplace. B.F. Skinner best described why bullying is not appropriate by stating, “We are only just beginning to understand the power of love because we are just beginning to understand the weakness of force and aggression.”
  • Creating Winner-takes-all Contingencies: We’ve all seen the coworker that steps on others to seemingly elevate himself. Does this competitive culture really produce the best outcomes? When it comes to ethical behavior, the answer is no. When there is only one winner in a given situation, people are more likely to cheat rather than face the consequences of losing. My mentors, Dr. Julie S. Vargas and Dr. Ernest Vargas at West Virginia University, always stressed the importance of setting criteria that all can meet as opposed to rank ordering people. In addition, setting group contingencies increases the probability of employees working together to achieve the desired outcome. Pay for Performance systems designed to reinforce cooperative behaviors, can be a very valuable tool for organizations (Abernathy, 2001).
  • Failure To Walk the Talk: One of the quickest ways a leader can lose respect is by just talking about what needs to be done rather than demonstrating it. It can also crush your reputation to talk about how hard others need to work while your followers find out you are on the golf course sipping an ice tea and posting it on Facebook. Ethical leaders do the right thing both when being watching and especially when no one is watching. The endless hard work behind the scenes may not seem noticeable to your employees, however you would be surprised at how in tune they are to your actions. Ethical leaders need to behave the same way on and off the job.
  • Lack of Transparency: If your employees see you dealing unethically with vendors, cheating clients out of quality services, or failing to keep your word, the ones with the most integrity will leave. If you make a mistake that negatively impacts your clients, it is crucial to step up to the plate and become extremely transparent about the problem. This provides you with an opportunity to create systems to prevent this situation in the future. If you appear to be covering up mistakes, your employees and stakeholders will lose all respect for you and this can ruin your reputation.

The advent of social media can also either improve your transparency or ruin your reputation. From clickbait headlines to unfair reviews of products and services, the open nature of social media presents ethical issues. The public should expect accurate online information, yet too often news stories, PR materials and other information are inaccurate.

Have you seen any of these behaviors compromise people’s moral compass? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, as I learn just as much from you as you do from me.

Abernathy, W. B. (2001). An analysis of twelve organizations’ total performance systems. In L. J. Hayes, J. Austin, R. Houmanfar, & M. C. Clayton (Eds.), Organizational Change (pp. 240–272). Reno, NV: Context Press.

Brett DinoviBrett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA has the unique and distinguished experience of studying the principles of applied behavior analysis under the rigorous scrutiny of both Dr. Julie S. Vargas (formerly Skinner) and Dr. E.A. Vargas at West Virginia University’s internationally recognized program. For the past 26 years, Brett has used behavior analytic principles to create large scale change across school districts, Fortune 500 companies using principles of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), and across individual learners. Brett has been a OBM consultant in Morgantown WV, an instructor at West Virginia University, a guest lecturer at numerous universities, a speaker on multiple Comcast Newsmakers TV programs, an expert witness in due process hearings, has publications in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, and has been in in executive leadership positions across schools and residential programs nationwide. In addition to an award from South Jersey Biz Magazine for “Best Places to Work,” an award for “Best of Families” in Suburban Magazine, and the distinguished “Top Ranked U.S. Executives” award, Brett’s proudest accomplishment is being a role model and father for his daughter and two stepchildren (one of which has autism). Brett can be reached at [email protected]


5 Comments on "Top 5 Ways to Ruin Your Reputation as an Ethical Leader"

  1. Thanks Brett–very concise and readable and deserving of a wider readership. I am so happy to see work through behavioral principles being spread to a more diverse audience. Hope your articles can find that audience as well as this one!

    Great job!

  2. Thanks so much Richard

  3. Great article Brett! I think the biggest hurdle for our growing field is ensuring that the science BCBA’s are held accountable to applying in service settings, is also applied at the organizational level. Practicing in one paradigm while being managed with another can create a dichotomy that makes it hard to be effective. A big high 5 to you for leading the way with your own team!

  4. I would add not being appreciative of the hard work of others. There have been several surveys that show employees are happier and produce better/more when their work/ideas are heard and appreciated.

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