One this is for sure, no one takes kindly to being told they are unethical. It can be hard enough informing an employee that their performance is not up to scratch but letting them know that you think their behaviour is unethical is a different kettle of fish.

Research shows that people have a strong desire to see themselves as ethical. In fact, the findings of one study revealed that a group of prisoners viewed themselves as more ethical than the average person. While we might sometimes act against what we know we ought to do, we mostly find ways to ensure this does not affect how we see ourselves.

This raises a conundrum in managing ‘grey area’ behaviour in the workplace. Frequently, managers must address inappropriate interpersonal behaviour, hold employees to account on company standards and values, or address business practices on ethical grounds. Diving in head first and letting someone know you think they are acting unethically is likely to fail. The defences go up, people stop listening, and worse still, they may even begin to look for evidence that they are right, and you are wrong. Our research shows that this may mean they may become more, as opposed to less, committed to the behaviour you are trying to get them to change.

Addressing behaviour on ethical grounds is important – it is a powerful source of motivation and provides a case for keeping actions in line with standards and values – but how can it be done in a way that avoids defensives, and worst still the potential for backfire effects.

Six tips for challenging unethical behaviour

As global leading experts in the psychology of ethical decision-making our peer-reviewed research has identified how ‘grey area’ behaviour becomes embedded in the norms and cultures of organizations. Slippery slopes and ethical blindspots mean that ‘grey area’ behaviour can easily go unseen and unquestioned, increasing the risk of more serious malpractice in the future.

The key is to create a conversation around ‘grey area’ behaviour which views ethical slipups as inevitable but preventable. It also takes seriously the idea that doing the right thing is not always clear-cut – mostly we are dealing with ethical grey areas that need adjustment through reflection and feedback.

Based on our peer-reviewed research we have identified six key strategies to rely on when challenging ethically grey area behaviours:

  1. Use positive emotion: Link behaviour change messages to pride about future positive behaviour, rather than guilt about past negative behaviour.
  2. Focus on action: Target behaviour, but don’t target people.
  3. Seek to identify: Don’t ostracize people because of their behaviour and seek to identify with their ethical slipups – we all get it wrong sometimes.
  4. Nudge, don’t confront: Use nudges rather than direct challenges. This helps people to adjust their behaviour, without having to feel confronted by strong messages characterizing them as unethical.
  5. Step-by-step: Focus on incremental change rather than radical change. This allows people to engage with the issue in a less black and white way.
  6. Target motivations: Challenge the perceived necessity of the behaviour. This allows people to see viable alternatives and reduces resistance.

Having difficult conversations around inappropriate behaviour in the workplace is never pleasant but being prepared and having the right tools can turn these conversations into moments of growth and insight. It also ensures that workplace relationships are protected because people feel safe and understood.

If you are interested in creating an ethical culture in your workplace and developing ‘speak up’ capabilities across all staff, please contact or (see for more details)

Professor Brock Bastian


Professor Brock Bastian is an internationally acclaimed researcher, author, and speaker who has spent the last 15 years seeking to understand the psychology of ethical decision-making.

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