Why Good People Make Bad Ethical Choices

Empathetic people can stray in pursuit of success at any cost

by Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow

For many women, having children and starting a family is an integral part of the vision for their lives. Getting pregnant, however, is not easy for all who seek it. About 6% of married women in the United States are unable to get pregnant after a year of unprotected sex, while 12% of women have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a child to term, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For years, an accomplished and trusted Indianapolis fertility physician, Dr. Donald Cline, provided what seemingly was the miracle of pregnancy to a myriad of desperate women and their families. Over a period of years, he assured his patients that he could help then conceive by using an anonymous medical student or resident. By all accounts he was a benevolent and understanding doctor who sincerely cared for his patients and got fast results for those who yearned to become pregnant.

Yet, this seemingly trust-worthy, intelligent and respectable physician committed countless unethical and illegal acts by impregnating his patients with his own sperm. In 2016, Dr. Cline admitted he felt pressured about 50 times to use his own sperm to inseminate his unwitting patients when he did not have access to donor sperm. Not only by his own admission were these acts egregious misrepresentations, but Dr. Cline’s conduct was unethical because it could lead half-siblings and other related individuals to marry each other without realizing their genetic connections to one another.


Blind Side

Good people naturally want to help their organization and customers. There is, however, an ominous blind side within the shadow of benevolent acts of deception. Why does this happen? Researchers, have found that employees often act unethically because they identified strongly with their profession and felt especially obligated to help when the stakes are high. In other words, in some cases, people who are deeply empathic may attempt do the right thing in the totally wrong way. This is a malevolent example of kindness and devotion to customers and clients gone destructively berserk. 

Unfortunately, the pursuit of success at any cost can become a destructive catalyst for unethical behavior, which actualizes in the backdrop of the heat of the moment. Whether you are sole practitioner, small firm owner with a few staff or manage a large team of employees, you have a responsibility to draw the line between loyalty to your business and customers and the laws of the society in which you work.

Performance Goals

As saying goes, “integrity is doing the right thing, when no one is watching.” But the truth is, people are watching and it is getting easier to do. In the case of Dr. Cline’s misdeeds, digital access of information regarding his patients’ genetic background was easily uncovered in a manner that was unimaginable just a few years ago. Ethical transgressions can and will be discovered and widely disseminated in a matter of seconds. The good old days of “no one is looking” are long gone.

The desire to do fulfill one’s desire to help the company should not out-weigh the overall welfare of the customer or client. Leaders should consider stepping back from setting unrealistic performance goals that invite people to cheat or make compromised choices. Anyone having an impulse to commit an unethical act, even if they truly believe their efforts will help a client of customer, may want to think again and ask themselves the following questions: If this made front page news how would it make me look? How would it affect my brand reputation? Would I be ashamed? Embarrassed? How will it hurt my customer or client?

Charlotte Westerhaus-RenfrowCharlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow teaches management and business law at IU’s Kelley School of Business and is President of ChangePro LLC, a leadership development consultancy.