Corporate Conformity And Blame Culture

UK TV viewers who sat in front of the box over Christmas may have inadvertently learned a corporate ethics lesson. In late 2022 the BBC transmitted the reality TV gameshow The Traitors. The concept is simple: 22 contestants perform tasks to build up a prize fund. Some of them are ‘Faithful’ and act for the group. Some are secret ‘Traitors’ who, if they manage to stay undetected by the others, will steal the prize fund from them.  

Blame Culture

At the end of each show, all the contestants gather to discuss the day’s events and individually vote out the one person who they feel is a Traitor. What’s striking about the early rounds of the game is how consistent the proposed names are after this discussion.

Despite having a pretty large team to choose from, and the votes being written in an anonymous ballot, the group almost unanimously converges on just one or two individuals. Despite no objective reason for such unanimity, it’s a strong demonstration that people want to be seen as ‘all being on the same page’ when working as a team. 

Conformity Criticism

Unfortunately, this urge to conform can lead to unethical group behavior. An individual, for example, is much more likely to cheat on a test if they believe that others around them are also cheating. [1] If the established ‘social norm’ in an organization is to bend the rules and be non-compliant, new recruits will pick this up and run with the pack. 

Furthermore, if employees have a strong allegiance to their company, they can justify their behavior to themselves. Employees convince themselves that it is ‘for the good of the company’ that they bend the rules.[2] 

We are very good at telling ourselves stories that justify our behaviors. [3] If these self-justifications are really good, we can show no physiological signs of concern at all when we lie and cheat. [4] Where we would normally get anxious and sweaty, we remain calm and perfectly dry. 

The Science Behind Being Unethical

Behavioral scientists term this ability to act unethically for a ‘just’ cause ‘Unethical Pro-organisation Behaviour,’ or UPB. You have probably heard such justifications throughout your career – ‘it’s standard business practice’; ‘our competitors are all doing this’; ‘the regulator is being unreasonable’; ‘it’s only a small rule breach.’ This is our moral disengagement armory that we use to put ourselves at ease with our moral lapses. 

Making A Change

An unethical culture will be hard to turn around. A common approach to transgression can be to reprimand or discipline individuals. However appealing retribution for human error might be, such approaches can have worsening effects on culture.

Public censure of staff leads to reluctance to speak up, defensiveness to auditors, and the covering up of mistakes. Rather than learning and improving an organization, blame cultures make unethical behavior more common.[5] 

This isn’t an argument for ‘no blame’ cultures, however. Individual responsibility – especially for misdemeanors such as bullying and harassment – will always be a required conclusion. Retribution to individuals can be an unjust response to pressures to ‘get results’ from an investigation or a consequence of pressure from higher-up organizations to ‘close this down fast and move on.’ Such pressures should be resisted. 

Three Steps To Encourage Corporate Conformity

Behavioral science literature offers some help in countering unethical corporate cultures, and the following are recurring themes. 

  • Define a meaningful code of conduct specific to your organization, and communicate it consistently. [6] Beware of cutting and pasting from documents produced by other organizations. The code needs to speak directly to your people and the organization in which they find themselves. The text needs to be explicit about behavioral expectations and give clear examples of both good and bad behavior. Refer to the code in meetings and key decision points for the organization. 

  • Try to shift the social norm towards appropriate behaviors.[7] Communicating the expected positive behavior may not be enough to change a culture. Much research has shown that fundamental training may have little effect on changing individual behavior. At the point of making significant decisions, clearly stating the social norm will have more effect. ‘You have an active role in decreasing the gender pay gap when you set this salary’ will be very much more effective than a generic appeal to a code of conduct or even simply stating that a gender pay gap exists. Making people feel that they are active participants in a group focused on the common good is a powerful motivator. 

  • Encourage bystander intervention. [8] Breaking away from conformity and speaking out against culturally accepted non-compliance is difficult for us. An organization will need to make such disclosures easy, without risk of retribution, and allow room for emotions to be expressed and unpalatable opinions tabled. The website referenced below may be a useful starting point for this difficult organizational journey. 

Use Corporate Conformity In The Best Way

Conformity can be a powerful force for good. If a leader manages to generate a culture of shared goals that generate positive outcomes, this will produce a company with increased productivity and a sense of fulfillment.

The same urge to conform can lead to a toxic culture with an unhealthy atmosphere for employees and customers alike. Whether your career is as a Traitor or a Faithful, understanding group conformity is essential.

This article was first published by the International Compliance Association (ICA), the leading professional body for the global regulatory and financial crime compliance community. For more information on the benefits of becoming an ICA member, including access to the ICA’s complete content library of articles, videos, podcasts, blogs, and e-books, visit: Become an ICA Member – Application Form (

Written by Paul Eccleson


[1] PLOS ONE, ‘Peer Effects in Unethical Behavior: Standing or Reputation?’

[2] Yurtkoru, S & Ebrahimi, N. (2017). ‘The relationship between affective commitment and unethical pro-organizational behavior: the role of moral disengagement’, Pressacademia. 4. 287-295. 10.17261/Pressacademia.2017.706. 

[3] Bandura, A. (2016) “Moral Disengagement : How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves.” New York: Worth Publishers Macmillan Learning. 

[4] OECD, Ideological Altruistic Cheating – Testing Robin Hood in a Lie Detector, 2018

[5] Heraghty D, Rae A, Dekker S (2020), ‘Managing accidents using retributive justice mechanisms: When the just culture policy gets done to you’, Safety Science, Volume 126. 

[6] CIPD, Rotten apples, bad barrels, and sticky situations: unethical workplace behaviour, 30 April 2019

[7] Schuster C, Sparkman G, Walton GM, Alles A, Loschelder DD. (2022) ‘Egalitarian norm messaging increases human resources professionals’ salary offers to women’. J Appl Psychol. Oct. 

[8] Protect is a UK organization that can provide help and advice on establishing effective whistleblowing processes.

Lavanya Rathnam

Lavanya Rathnam is an experienced technology, finance, and compliance writer. She combines her keen understanding of regulatory frameworks and industry best practices with exemplary writing skills to communicate complex concepts of Governance, Risk, and Compliance (GRC) in clear and accessible language. Lavanya specializes in creating informative and engaging content that educates and empowers readers to make informed decisions. She also works with different companies in the Web 3.0, blockchain, fintech, and EV industries to assess their products’ compliance with evolving regulations and standards.

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