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What do the Atlanta test-score scandal and the British tabloid phone-hacking scandal have in common?

Both cases are widely publicized instances of wrongdoing, appearing to emanate from the top of the organization, and pressing downward. We know that some individuals were involved in the transgressions, but not others.

Under these circumstances, it’s not surprising that public anger is directed at individuals who have engaged in misconduct. There is a tendency to attribute their bad behavior to fundamental flaws in their character: they lack integrity, they are immoral, and they’re just plain bad people. In contrast, those who did not break the rules were moral, upstanding, and professional.

But to cast these scandals in this way is to miss the forest for the trees. Although it may be satisfying to blame the individuals involved, doing so frames the problem as one of individual personality and moral character, ignoring a critical fact: These are examples of organizational misconduct—when individuals acting in their organizational roles violate internal or external rules, regulations or laws in furtherance of organizational goals. A bookkeeper embezzling from a school district wouldn’t be classified as organizational misconduct because the embezzlement doesn’t advance the district’s goals. In contrast, when several airlines conspired a few years ago to fix the price of passenger and cargo fuel surcharges, the fact that doing so boosted their profits made the behavior organizational misconduct.

Organizational misconduct is one of the features of what my colleague Diane Vaughan has referred to as the “dark side” of organizations, which includes accidents and disasters. Vaughan—as well as Greve, Palmer & Pozner (2010), three other scholars who study organizational misconduct—has suggested some ideas that can be helpful in making sense of the Atlanta scandal. The first is that all organizations, public and private, are vulnerable to organizational misconduct, because they are competing for the scarce resources they need to survive. Public institutions, such as large urban school systems, must appear to be effective and efficient, or risk losing their franchise, particularly in the face of threats of privatization or receivership. Even organizations that we might judge successful may turn to misconduct to maintain their market position.

Read the full post at Aaron Pallas’ blog.

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Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and Northwestern University, and...

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