Walmart’s Blind Spots: Why Do Good People Do Bad Things?

Do the right thing for whom? Walmart’s Global Ethics website. (Note spelling of “descisions.”)I’ve been quietly cheering about positive changes at Walmart over the past few years. And, like Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, I’ve admired the retailer’s gutsy sustainability leadership

But this week’s news that Walmart execs paid bribes to grease its growth in Mexico have all but eroded my trust in the company—just as it has eroded billions in the low-price leviathan’s stock value

Why do people make such poor ethical decisions, especially when the stakes are so high? I wrote about that topic a year ago under the headline, “Be the Conscience in the Conference Room.” The time feels write to reprise that post (in italics below). 

A good reminder to all: Trust is earned in inches and lost in yards. 

(Mental Shavings, June 21, 2011) We all like to think that we’d “do the right thing” when faced with an ethical dilemma.

But the hard truth is that we often fail to recognize the ethical dimension of many of the decisions we make.

Those “blind spots” are the subject of a superb—and superbly timed—book by Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel who argue that we unwittingly ignore the moral component of many decisions because we’re blinded by self-interest or because we naively trust the integrity of other’s decisions.

[Note to Walmart execs: You can buy the book on Walmart.com.] 

Did anyone at BP intentionally set out to cause the largest environmental catastrophe in US history? Probably not. More likely: Hundreds of small “economic decisions” were made without considering that they were “ethical decisions,” too.

Do codes of ethics1 help? Not really say Bazerman and Tenbrunsel because those codes often reinforce the illusion of ethical behavior (like an immunity idol perhaps)—or because financial incentives create “motivated blindness.”

As communicators, we can’t control all of the decisions our organizations make. But we do have an obligation to shine a light on the ethical dimension of those decisions while they are being made.

We must be the conscience in the conference room. And given the lapses of ethical behavior that consume today’s headlines, I can’t think of a more important role for communicators to play.

1Not surprisingly, “Blind Spots” reports that the codes of ethics of S&P 500 companies are often cut-and-paste clones. In fact, the average company repeats 37 sentences word for word.