December 14, 2011
Does a Corporation Have a Conscience and Can It Tempt Ethical People to Do Bad Things?
Posted by Marcia Narine

Time Magazine’s “person of the year” is the “protestor.” Occupy Wall Street’s participants have generated discussion unprecedented in recent years about the role of corporations and their executives in society. The movement has influenced workers and unemployed alike around the world and has clearly shaped the political debate.

But how does a corporation really act? Doesn’t it act through its people? And do those people behave like the members of the homo economicus species acting rationally, selfishly for their greatest material advantage and without consideration about morality, ethics or other people? If so, can a corporation really have a conscience?

In her book Cultivating Conscience: How Good Laws Make Good People, Lynn Stout, a corporate and securities professor at UCLA School of Law argues that the homo economicus model does a poor job of predicting behavior within corporations. Stout takes aim at Oliver Wendell Holmes’ theory of the “bad man” (which forms the basis of homo economicus), Hobbes’ approach in Leviathan, John Stuart Mill’s theory of political economy, and those judges, law professors, regulators and policymakers who focus solely on the law and economics theory that material incentives are the only things that matter.

Citing hundreds of sociological studies that have been replicated around the world over the past fifty years, evolutionary biology, and experimental gaming theory, she concludes that  people do not generally behave like the “rational maximizers” that ecomonic theory would predict. In fact other than the 1-3% of the population who are psychopaths, people are “prosocial, ” meaning that they sacrifice to follow ethical rules, or to help or avoid harming others (although interestingly in student studies, economics majors tended to be less prosocial than others). 

She recommends a three-factor model for judges, regulators and legislators who want to shape human behavior:

 “Unselfish prosocial behavior toward strangers, including unselfish compliance with legal and ethical rules, is triggered by social context, including especially:

(1)         instructions from authority

(2)         beliefs about others’ prosocial behavior; and

(3)         the magnitude of the benefits to others.

Prosocial behavior declines, however, as the personal cost of acting prosocially increases.”

While she focuses on tort, contract and criminal law, her model and criticisms of the homo economicus model may be particularly helpful in the context of understanding corporate behavior. Corporations clearly influence how their people act. Professor Pamela Bucy, for example, argues that government should only be able to convict a corporation if it proves that the corporate ethos encouraged agents of the corporation to commit the criminal act. That corporate ethos results from individuals working together toward corporate goals.

Stout observes that an entire generation of business and political leaders has been taught that people only respond to material incentives, which leads to poor planning that can have devastating results by steering naturally prosocial people to toward unethical or illegal behavior. She warns against “rais[ing] the cost of conscience,” stating that “if we want people to be good, we must not tempt them to be bad.”

In her forthcoming article “Killing Conscience: The Unintended Behavioral Consequences of ‘Pay for Performance,’” she applies behavioral science to incentive based-pay. She points to the savings and loans crisis of the 80's, the recent teacher cheating scandals on standardized tests, Enron, Worldcom, the 2008 credit crisis, which stemmed in part from performance-based bonuses that tempted brokers to approve risky loans, and Bear Sterns and AIG executives who bet on risky derivatives. She disagrees with those who say that that those incentive plans were poorly designed, arguing instead that excessive reliance on even well designed ex-ante incentive plans can “snuff out” or suppress conscience and create “psycopathogenic” environments, and has done so as evidenced by “a disturbing outbreak of executive-driven corporate frauds, scandals and failures.” She further notes that the pay for performance movement has produced less than stellar improvement in the performance and profitability of most US companies.  

She advocates instead for trust-based” compensation arrangements, which take into account the parties’ capacity for prosocial behavior rather than leading employees to believe that the employer rewards selfish behavior. This is especially true if that reward tempts employees to engage in fraudulent or opportunistic behavior if that is the only way to realistically achieve the performance metric.

Applying her three factor model looks like this: Does the company’s messaging tell employees that it doesn’t care about ethics? Is it rewarding other people to act in the same way? And is it signaling that there is nothing wrong with unethical behavior or that there are no victims? This theory fits in nicely with the Bucy corporate ethos paradigm described above.

Stout proposes modest, nonmaterial rewards such as greater job responsibilities, public recognition, and more reasonable cash awards based upon subjective, ex post evaluations on the employee’s performance, and cites studies indicating that most employees thrive and are more creative in environments that don’t focus on ex ante monetary incentives. She yearns for the pre 162(m) days when the tax code didn’t require corporations to tie executive pay over one million dollars to performance metrics.

Stout’s application of these behavioral science theories provide guidance that lawmakers and others may want to consider as they look at legislation to prevent or at least mitigate the next corporate scandal. She also provides food for thought for those in corporate America who want to change the dynamics and trust factors within their organizations, and by extension their employee base, shareholders and the general population.

 

 

 

Agency Law, Books, Business Ethics, Business Organizations, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Law, Crime and Criminal Law, Economics, Empirical Legal Studies, Employees, Enron, Junior Scholars, Law & Economics, Law & Society, Management, Organizational Theory, Politics, Sociology, White Collar Crime | Bookmark

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