People who see themselves as ‘professional’ are actually more likely to behave unethically

ITHACA, N.Y. — Are “professionals” more likely to act unprofessionally? New research by a team from Cornell University is shedding some light on the connection between someone thinking they display “professionalism” and their tendency to bend the rules whenever it’s convenient. Scientists conclude managers and employees who consider themselves professional are actually more vulnerable to committing conflicts of interest in the workplace.

In more scientific terms, the study reports safeguards from bias fail much more often among members of the work force with a particularly high personal self-concept of professionalism.

“I noticed that many professional advisors, such as financial advisors and physicians, claim that their ‘professionalism’ protects them from corruption and unwanted influence from conflicts of interest; that they can ‘manage their own brains,’” explains study author, Sunita Sah, associate professor of management and organizations at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, in a university release. “However, a large body of social science research shows that much bias from conflicts of interests is unintentional and implicit, and claims of professionalism and integrity do little to protect against unwanted influence.”

More vulnerable to quid pro quo

Prof. Suh interviewed 400 managers and asked about a variety of conflict-of-interest scenarios. For each hypothetical situation, each manager had to either accept or reject the relevant gift offered in each scenario. Moreover, the participants also had to imagine accepting these gifts. Then, the group had to consider if the gift would hold any sway over them regarding future company decisions.

Before beginning these exercises, all participants had their perceived levels of professionalism measured. The team accomplished this by measuring each person’s predictions on how well they can prioritize objectivity over everything else and self-regulate unwanted influence.

“Consistent with my predictions, the greater the managers’ sense of professionalism, the more likely they were to report that they would accept gifts from people with questionable or ambiguous agendas, and less likely to be influenced by the specific gifts in the scenarios,” Prof. Sah writes. “These overall results indicate that a high sense of professionalism with a shallow understanding of the concept may lead to greater acceptance of conflicts and potentially more bias.”

More education can keep managers in check

At one time, study authors note that “professionalism” was a word largely synonymous with important fields like law and medicine. Now, Prof. Sah says the word has evolved into a full-blown concept referring to how people conduct themselves at work across a variety of fields.

“I propose that professionalism be redefined not as an individual characteristic or feeling, but as a set of observable repeated behavioral practices that demonstrates a deep understanding of the concept and promotes outcomes in the interest of clients and the societal good,” Prof. Sah continues. “Policies and rules need to be combined with positive role models who model deep professionalism and provide education – nurturing virtues of thought – along with opportunities to practice – nurturing virtues of character.”

In conclusion, Prof. Sah theorizes the concept of deep professionalism may one day become a common topic of study at business schools across the country.

Managers could commit to continuing education and practice to remain competent and ethical,” she concludes. “Efforts to progress one’s cognitive moral development and empathy would help in understanding one’s limitations and fallibilities. Greater humility and the ability to articulate and acknowledge doubts in relation to [conflicts of interests] and other ethical problems is critical to developing and maintaining an ethical self.”

The findings appear in the journal Academy of Management Perspectives.

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