Do busy days make for bad ethics?

Decision making in stressful conditions may lead to rules and ethics violations.
Decision making in stressful conditions may lead to rules and ethics violations.

In HR we deal with the fallout from rules being broken, procedures not being followed, and decisions being made that don’t meet the ethics of the organization. If you have ever wondered why people do those things the answer may be in their work schedule, so says a new study.

Busy people

A study published in Social Science Research Network and reported on in the Harvard Business Review provided evidence supporting something most of us have intuitively known for a long time. When people get very busy they take short cuts and “bend” the rules. The study looked at a hospital and the rate at which employees washed their hands, something that has been identified as critical to keeping illnesses from spreading. They discovered as a work shift proceeded the rate of hand washing declined and it got even worse if the work had become high pressured. Despite the evidence that hand washing is critical to preventing the spread of disease as healthcare workers became too busy they skipped the hand washing.
According to ethics expert Mary Bennett of NAVEX Global, other studies found similar results. One such study looked at students as a seminary, where the subjects of religion and ethics were being studied, people would walk by someone that needed help if they were late for an appointment or class. Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, talks about two systems of thinking. One is intuitive and one is purposeful. The purposeful one, System 2, is where rules would be followed. But System 2 thinking gets depleted if used too often and that is what happens in busy situations. People fall back to System 1 and they don’t always make the right decision.

How to help people make the right decisions

Bennett has some excellent suggestions on how companies can help their employees not compromise compliance with rules and ethics. These include things the employer (read HR) can do, things managers should do and things employees should do.

HR’s role would include:

  • Being aware that in busy, high pressure times, rules may be broken and ethics compromised;
  • Monitor HR data, such as absenteeism, tardiness and terminations as a potential sign of too much pressure in the workplace;
  • Consider creating a policy on mitigating pressure;
  • Training managers on how to recognize signs of too much pressure;
  • Train employees on how to deal with stress and encourage managers to provide opportunities for breaks and stress release.

A manager’s role would include:

  • Be aware of the impact of demands they are putting on employees regarding schedule and overtime;
  • Remind employees of the importance of adhering to quality standards and encourage them to work at a pace that will allow them to do so;
  • Allow and encourage employees to take breaks and to ask for help if needed.
  • Teach employees how to make difficult decisions if needed;
  • Be vigilant for the little short cuts, the documentation that is not done, etc.;
  • Be self-aware, realize that you can get caught up in the same situation.

Employee’s role would include:

  • Raise a hand when things get to be too much;
  • Recognize stress and take a break;
  • Ask for help as needed;
  • Don’t rush through decisions;
  • Resist those temptations to break the rules “just this one time.”

Final Thoughts

I have been in many situations where poor decision making due to pressure has led to errors and even injuries. The poor hygiene demonstrated at the hospital in the study mentioned above could have disastrous results. I have had to deal with extracting people from machines because they were in too much of a hurry to follow safety protocols. Decisions made under pressure can lead to financial errors that would greatly harm a company. HR can make a major impact by being aware of the effects of pressure and having a protocol in place to help their organization deal with these detrimental effects. Ethics expert Mary Bennett offers a white paper, Creating a Culture of Ethics, Integrity & Compliance: Seven Steps to Success, I refer you to if you want further help. After all I would hate for you to make a mistake in a pressure situation.

Time is running out on our training special discount. We are offering a 30% discount on leadership and managerial training until October 25th. Click on the MindEdge banner in the right column for further information.

2 thoughts on “Do busy days make for bad ethics?”

  1. Hi Michael-
    It’s both frightening and normal that our ethics seem to slip when we’re busy or stressed – in the workplace this can mean lots of things. Years ago when I worked at a movie theater concessions stand, we always regularly swept and mopped behind the counter throughout the day. However, one crazy busy afternoon everyone was so busy helping guests that the cleaning was neglected and soon we were all slipping around on spilled soda and popcorn (gross, I know). Not only does this push a few health codes, but it endangered our safety – at least two of us (including myself) slipped and fell on the floor.
    While this example might be more concrete than a lot of ethical dilemmas in the workplace, like cleaning regularly, ethical practices need to be outlined and communicated regularly.
    Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Comment

Pin It on Pinterest