Confessional Reluctance and Ethics Enforcement: The Paradoxical Cost of Zero Tolerance

Project: Research project


In response to recent high profile ethical catastrophes, organizations have adopted tougher ethical stances, the most extreme of which are “zero tolerance” policies, in which even small infractions are substantially punished. Although punitive policies may reduce the base-rate of ethical violations, they may paradoxically increase major ethical infractions through the phenomenon of confessional reluctance, defined as the “resistance to disclosing ethical violations to peers and supervisors.” Confessional reluctance could therefore turn minor ethical violations into major ethical catastrophes, as organization members seek to cover-up their mistakes through deception and the falsification of records.

We propose a multilevel model linking punitive ethical climates, confessional reluctance and unethical escalation, and test it through archival, field and experimental studies. To better understand confessional reluctance—and to enable interventions to reduce it—we also identify learning climate, team/lead-member exchange and prosocial motivation as key moderators of the punitiveness-confessional reluctance relationship. Study 1 provides preliminary evidence for confessional reluctance and its link to punitive ethical climates through an online survey. Studies 2, 3 and 4 examine the link between confessional reluctance, punitive ethical climate and the escalation of unethical behavior through experimental studies. Study 4 uses company annual reports to examine the link between punitive policies and major ethical infractions, and Study 5 provides a longitudinal test of the model in the field.

Intellectual Merit

We identify a novel phenomenon—confessional reluctance—to better understand ethical violations in organizations. This research extends the literature by combining organizational variables (i.e., climate) and individual variables (i.e., prosocial motivation) into a multilevel framework. Our approach harnesses the complementary strengths of different methodologies, including the control of the lab, the realism of archival studies, and the generalizability of field samples. The lab studies provide rigorous manipulations of punitive climate with realistic simulations of organizational behavior and behavioral measures of ethical violations and confessional reluctance. The archival study extends our model to a range of companies, and the field study examines our full model across branches of a corporation. Our interdisciplinary approach uses the tools of organizational behavior and experimental social psychology to extend our understanding of ethical behavior.

Broader Impact

Understanding and preventing organizational ethical catastrophes is essential to a functioning society. Ethical breaches take economic and social tolls among the general public, corporations and governments. By identifying a new way of understanding major ethical breaches, our model suggests actionable strategies for decreasing them, including employee selection, improving the psychosocial context among leaders and team members, and implementing forgiving organizational ethical climates. Our model is particularly transformative because it contradicts basic intuitions about management. An understandable reaction to ethical breaches is to make an ethical climate more punitive, but this can paradoxically make major ethical violations more likely. Ultimately, this research will provide a straightforward and empirically-backed method for making organizations more ethical.
Effective start/end date8/1/157/31/18


  • National Science Foundation (NSF)


Ethical climate
Field study
Experimental study
Organizational behaviour
Employee selection
Social Psychology
Interdisciplinary approach