Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2005

Letting Misconduct Slide: The Acceptability of Gradual Erosion in Others' Unethical Behavior

by Francesca Gino and Max H. Bazerman

Abstract

Four laboratory studies show that people are more likely to overlook others' unethical behavior when ethical degradation occurs slowly rather than in one abrupt shift. Participants served in the role of watchdogs charged with catching instances of cheating. The watchdogs in our studies were less likely to criticize the actions of others when their behavior eroded gradually, over time, rather than in one abrupt shift. We refer to this phenomenon as the slippery slope effect. Our studies also demonstrate that at least part of this effect can be attributed to implicit biases that result in a failure to notice ethical erosion when it occurs slowly. Broadly, our studies provide evidence as to when and why people overlook cheating by others and examine the conditions under which the slippery slope effect occurs.

Keywords: Ethics; Behavior; Crime and Corruption; Prejudice and Bias;

Citation:

Gino, Francesca, and Max H. Bazerman. "Letting Misconduct Slide: The Acceptability of Gradual Erosion in Others' Unethical Behavior." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 06-007, August 2005. (Revised September 2006, February 2007, January 2009. Previously titled "Slippery Slopes and Misconduct: The Effect of Gradual Degradation on the Failure to Notice Others' Unethical Behavior.")