Ethical distance in corrupt firms: How do innocent bystanders become guilty perpetrators?

  • Zyglidopoulos S
  • Fleming P
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This paper develops the concept of the "continuum of destructiveness" in relation to organizational corruption. This notion captures the slippery slope of wrongdoing as actors engage in increasingly dubious practices. We identify four kinds of individuals along this continuum in corrupt organizations, who range from complete innocence to total guilt. They are innocent bystanders, innocent participants, active rationalizers and guilty perpetrators. Traditional explanations of how individuals move from bystander status to guilty perpetrators usually focus on socialization and institutional factors. In addition to these factors, we propose that the very distance between an act and its ethical consequences (ethical distance) may also play a determining role - if not always in the same way - in the transition process. Having developed this conceptual argument, we conclude with a discussion of managerial and research implications.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Business ethics
  • Bystander
  • Corruption
  • Ethical distance
  • Rationalization

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  • Stelios C. Zyglidopoulos

  • Peter J. Fleming

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