Unethical behaviors are behaviors that we consider to be morally wrong. We can get our understandings of ethics from culture, parents, religion, philosophy, or personal introspection.
For millennia, there have been disagreements over what is and isn’t ethical. It differs from person to person and society to society. However, some behaviors tend to be off-limits in most ethical frameworks.
For example, theft, violence, lying, and cheating are understood to be unethical in just about every ethical framework.
Definition of Unethical Behavior
Surprisingly, or perhaps not, what is defined as unethical behavior is totally constrained by the societal norms of the times. What was once a norm a hundred years ago, may be considered absolutely appalling today.
On the one hand, this ever-evolving definition of morality is a sign of progress. Societies become enlightened over time, and so our conception of what is unethical advances.
On the other hand, it also creates a sense of uncertainty. We cannot be sure what definition will be next. To make things even more complicated, every society is different. So, who is to say that the definition of “unethical” in society X should be applied to society Y?
While there are competing ideas about what unethical behavior is, the below behaviors are generally agreed to be unethical in most societies.
Related: Ethical Behavior Examples
Examples of Unethical Behavior
1. Taking Advantage of Misfortune
The phrase ‘kicking people while they’re down’ is a saying in English that refers to this unethical behavior.
For example, companies that take advantage of disasters to increase prices are engaging in unethical behaviors.
After a natural disaster people need a wide variety of items to rebuild damaged homes. Tools such as electric generators and chain saws are necessary when electricity has been knocked out and fallen trees have to be removed.
Unfortunately, sometimes companies will try to take advantage of this misfortune by increasing prices of much-needed good and services. Prices can go up by as much as two or three hundred percent. That is called price-gouging.
Companies will often say that they must raise prices because transportation and labor fees increase after a crisis. However, many people find that hard to believe and there are local and federal laws against it.
2. Overbilling Clients
Overbilling involves charging people a deceptive amount, such as charging someone for 5 hours of work even though a job only took two.
This is an example of unethical behavior that seems relatively harmless, but can still result in going to prison.
In the legal profession, billing clients for more hours than you actually worked is considered a crime. In fact, in some cases, overbilling can reach the point of being a federal crime. For example, in the U.S., the penalty can be a fine of 10,000 USD per offense and could lead to incarceration. Losing the license to practice law is also a very real possibility.
Overbilling is not limited to the legal profession. In the healthcare industry, overbilling can involve charging for medical tests or treatments that never occurred. Building contractors can also be guilty of overbilling if they charge more for goods or services than was initially agreed upon.
As it turns out, there are many kinds of lies. Of course, there is the bald-faced lie. There is also the lie of omission, the lie of deception, the lie of fabrication, the lie of exaggeration, and of course, the white lie.
Who knew there were so many types of lies?
Obviously, in most situations, lying is considered unethical and a form of Machiavellianism. The only exception is the white lie. This is the type of lie that is done to spare someone’s feelings. Certainly, this kind of lie is understandable, even acceptable.
The other lies however, are not. Sure, there may exist extenuating circumstances. Some factors could make the lie understandable, even excusable. So, each situation needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Even then, there is likely to be disagreement among those involved.
A kickback is making an illegal payment to someone to gain favorable treatment.
A kickback doesn’t have to be in the form of money. It can take the form of giving a gift or providing a service as well. Just about anything that has value can be used as a kickback.
For example, a pharmaceutical company might hold a seminar on a beautiful island resort. It invites selected government officials and provides free airfare and accommodation to each one for the weekend.
There is no doubt that the company is hoping to gain a contract or federal approval for one of their products. This is a classic example of a kickback.
5. Money Under the Table
Similar to the kickback, but not nearly as subtle, is the good ol’ money under-the-table trick. In other words, a bribe. Obviously unethical; undoubtedly against the law; and unfortunately, hard to catch.
Giving money under the table is probably one of the oldest tricks in the books. A bribe can be used for just about any nefarious endeavor, and probably has been.
The unfortunate thing is how difficult it can be to catch. After all, there aren’t going to be any electronic transactions between the two culprits. Law enforcement won’t be able to identify any plane or hotel reservations to match up. It’s just a simple “here’s some cash” maneuver.
6. Mistreatment of Animals
There are few acts more appalling than the abuse of animals. This can range from physical abuse of pets by their owners to dog-fighting for entertainment purposes.
Fortunately, many countries have laws regarding these matters.
As society evolves and becomes more enlightened, other, more subtle forms of abuse have been identified. For example, raising poultry in tiny cages is standard practice in much of the industry. However, for a living creature to spend its entire life in a metal cage so small that it can barely move is flat-out cruel.
Animal rights groups have worked steadily to change these practices, and consumers have expressed their opinion through their pocketbooks. Today, more and more poultry farms are moving to “free-range” practices, which allows chickens to spend most of their days running around and wandering fields on sunny days.
7. Child Labor
Believe it or not, even in the 21st century, child labor is widespread in many parts of the world.
Human rights organizations such as UNICEF have been working hard to stop child labor practices for decades. Although their efforts have helped, the problem is so pervasive that today, nearly 1 in 10 children worldwide are forced into child labor.
Several of the world’s most popular products benefit directly from child labor. So, if you like chocolate, use software on your computer, own a smartphone, or wear clothes, there is a strong possibility that children have been involved in the production process at some point.
8. Oppressing Political Activism
In the democratic world, prohibiting the expression of views that are contrary to the ruling government is considered a violation of human rights.
Unfortunately, there are many countries that do not agree.
Journalists or political activists are often silenced because they made their views public. The term “silenced” is a euphemism for what can really happen, such as being put in jail or even murdered.
Yes, that does sound preposterous in the 21st century, but it is the reality nonetheless. There are many examples available to prove this point, and you can see for yourself if you want; as long as you are in a country that allows an internet search on this topic, otherwise, be careful.
9. False Advertising
False advertising is a statement in advertising that is false or misleading in an attempt to deceive the audience.
Companies have been making false claims about their products since the beginning of commercialism, and before.
It used to be a rampant practice in the 19th century. Eventually, governments got involved and started passing legislation prohibiting misleading claims in advertising.
Now, some companies use clever techniques to avoid violating a narrow interpretation of the law. For example, in TV and print ads there will sometimes be very, very, very small print marked by an asterisk. That is where the company reveals that some claims in the ad might be exaggerated and “results may vary.”
It is a clever trick, and legal, but unethical nonetheless.
The workplace can be a petri dish of interpersonal dysfunction. Office politics, backstabbing colleagues, and sabotage are but a few examples of how people will work to destroy the people around them.
Among those social maladies is the ever-present gossiping. Spreading unsubstantiated information about a co-worker in an attempt to damage their reputation is as old as time itself. Even if the information is true, it is still unethical.
Gossiping creates an unpleasant organizational culture. It fosters an environment of mistrust among people that often need to work together for the company to succeed.
Despite the myriad of troubles it creates, it is one of the biggest complaints that employees have about the office. Those that complain the most might be the biggest culprits.
By contrast, examples of prosocial behaviors in the workplace include cooperation, working in teams, asking for permission, and offering help.
Sabotage involves undermining someone else in order to prevent them from being successful.
While in situations such as wars, sabotage is justifiable, it is unethical behavior in the vast majority of situations.
For example, if you are competing against someone else for a job and you lock the door to the waiting room behind you so they can’t get in (and therefore miss their job interview), you sabotaged their chances for personal gain. This is considered unfair and therefore unethical.
Similarly, in sports, you may sabotage an opponent by stealing their equipment or putting an obstacle in their way. Unless these are parts of the rules, you’re engaging in sabotage.
Threatening other people is often an example of unethical behavior. However, people often do this in order to get their own way.
The classical example of this is mafia bosses who threaten local businesses with violence unless they pay “protection” fees. These threats, also known as extortion, coerce people into doing things they don’t want to do in order to avoid harm.
Another example of a threat is in the playground when the bully says “give me your lunch money or I’ll punch you”. This threat denies someone free will and undermines their right to live a peaceful existence.
Bullying is a schoolyard tactic and learned behavior that encompasses a range of other unethical behaviors such as name-calling, gossiping, threatening, and exclusion of people based on a popularity contest.
A simple example of bullying is giving another child constant put-downs at school. This will lead the bullied child to feel unsafe at school and unhappy in their learning environment.
Another example is systematically excluding a child from activities in order to exert power over them. This is unfortunately extremely common in classrooms and can cause sadness, anxiety, and stress for kids.
Statistics show that most children will experience or be the perpetrators of bullying throughout their schooling years. It can dramatically change the life chances of children, especially if children withdraw from their studies as a result.
Cheating involves breaking the rules in order to give yourself an unfair advantage.
Children will often cheat in games before they’re old enough to develop a clear understanding of morals and ethics. But as we raise them, we teach them about ethics and the importance of following the rules.
In adolescence and adulthood, cheating might include asking someone else to write your assignment for you, breaking the rules in sports to win, or counting cards in a poker game.
Another even more sinister example of cheating is when people accept bribes in order to fail in sports. We call this “match fixing”. For example, a tennis player might be paid to lose, so gamblers can put money on the opponent and win big.
Gerrymandering is an example of unethical behavior that we see politicians doing all the time in the United States.
It is the act of carving-up political districts in order to ensure your political party will win an election.
For example, politicians might decide that there will be one district that his heavily Republican and three that are slightly Democratic. The results might be:
- District 1: 9 votes Republican, 1 vote Democrat
- District 2: 4 votes Republican, 6 votes Democrat
- District 3: 4 votes Republican, 6 votes Democrat
- District 4: 4 votes Republican, 6 votes Democrat
In this scenario, there were 21 votes for Republicans and 19 votes for democrats. You would think that means the Republicans would win because it’s democracy and in democracies the majority rules, right?
But because the districts were unfairly drawn, the Democrats would win 3 districts and the Republicans would only win 1, giving the Democrats an advantage.
Gerrymandering is a big problem in the USA and it’s done by both Democrats and Republicans. It’s clearly an example of unethical behavior designed to disadvantage the majority and advantage the minority.
The examples provided above are wide-ranging, but certainly not exhaustive. It is easy to think of other instances of unethical behavior this list has missed. In reality, there probably isn’t enough bandwidth on a 5G network to describe all possible examples, both past and present.
The good news is that for the most severe examples of these ills, there are people working hard to eliminate their presence. Every day, hundreds of organizations are exerting their maximum effort to save children that are victims of child labor, to free animals from horrid abuse, and to create laws that will prevent those actions from occurring again.
It is a constant battle between good and evil that must exist today, tomorrow, and forever after.
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Mohammed, N. (2018). Impact of misleading/false advertisement to consumer behaviour. International Journal of Economics and Business Research, 16(4), 453 – 465. https://doi.org/10.1504/IJEBR.2018.095343
Wise, P. & Blair, M. (2007). The UNICEF report on child well-being. Ambulatory pediatrics: the official journal of the Ambulatory Pediatric Association. 7, 265-6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ambp.2007.05.001