Ethical Issues in Behavior Modification in the Workplace

The methods you use in behavior modification can affect the behaviors of others in the office.
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Behavior modification is the act of shaping how your employees behave in the workplace. Most managers practice behavior modification by using positive reinforcement to reward those who excel. For example, you might provide a year-end bonus or raise to those who've gone above and beyond. Warnings and suspension of employment are examples of behavior modification through negative reinforcement. If successful, these modification techniques encourage or discourage behaviors in the workplace. Ethical issues come into play when you consider possible adverse effects of behavior modification on other employees in the office and your own ability as a manager to use positive and negative reinforcement objectively.


    The ethics of controlling others is perhaps the overarching ethical concern of behavior modification in the workplace. When you perform behavior modification, you are encouraging or even forcing an employee to behave in a way that might not be normal for her. In some instances, you might not see any ethical issues with modification. For example, writing up an employee who's consistently late might not seem to pose any issues. Forcing someone with specialized skills, however, to perform work that's not normal for her might cause unnecessary stress or anxiety, even if it benefits the company in the short term. Behavior modification should bring out the best in your employees as well as benefit the office.


    Influencing selfishness or vicious competition among employees is a serious ethical concern in behavior modification. This issue is most obvious when it comes to negative reinforcement. If employees find you scolding or haranguing their co-workers for making mistakes, they might practice this behavior themselves on their colleagues, considering it a part of the workplace culture. Positive reinforcement can potentially cause counterproductive competitiveness, creating a culture of selfishness as opposed to one of altruism and teamwork. Consider rewarding your team as a group to offset these adverse effects.


    Even the most well-meaning managers are capable of making decisions based on favoritism or discrimination. Whenever you punish or reward someone in your office, consider your own motives. Ask yourself if you're being fair. For example, if you're about to reward one of your employees with a raise, compare her performance to that of others in the office to prove that she's truly excelled. If you think the decision wouldn't be fair, it might be based on past experiences with similar people or even just a preference for her personality, which isn't relevant to her job performance.


    Even if you think that your methods for behavior modification are fair, monitor and confront the perspectives of other women in the office. If you reward an employee with a promotion, others might feel jealous or that you based your decision on favoritism. Use positive and negative reinforcement strategically. In some cases, it might make more sense to be discreet about rewarding or punishing one of your employees to limit the amount of chatter and negative reactions your decision might cause.

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