Bottom Line Is Important But Ethical Standards Shouldn’t Be Ignored

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Written by Mary Mawritz, PhD, an associate professor of Management at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, the following opinion piece discusses why bottom line success is important and should be considered in decision-making, but should not be pursued with a disregard for all else.

COVID-19 has forced people, in all walks of life, to face difficult decisions. Restaurant owners had to decide if they should offer in-house dining to keep their business alive, but potentially at the expense of the health and welfare of their employees, their customers, and themselves. Lawmakers needed to decide if they should institute mandates that could have detrimental consequences for economic prosperity but could also save lives. Research suggests that how these decisions are made has as much to do with the mentality of the decision-maker as the facts at hand.

Such decisions are difficult. There are tradeoffs, pros and cons that the decision-maker needs to consider, and the ultimate decision likely depends on what they prioritize. My colleagues and I have explored how these management decisions are made and have discovered that a certain mindset exists among business leaders that can result in calamitous decisions. We refer to this mindset as “bottom-line mentality” — one-dimensional thinking that revolves around securing bottom-line outcomes to the neglect of competing priorities.

We initially began this research and defined “bottom-line mentality” based on our observations that there seemed to be a tendency, especially here in the United States, to prioritize bottom-line outcomes, such as profits and financial success, above all else.

Consider, for example, the Wells Fargo scandal in 2016 whereby employees, who were incentivized with aggressive sales goals, ended up creating fraudulent customer accounts to accomplish those goals. It was reported in the aftermath that Wells Fargo employees were so myopically focused on attaining their bottom-line goals that they disregarded ethics.

Just a few weeks ago, Boeing agreed to pay a $2.5 billion settlement to resolve a criminal charge related to a conspiracy to defraud the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Acting Assistant Attorney General David Burns of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division stated: “Boeing’s employees chose the path of profit over candor by concealing material information from the FAA concerning the operation of its 737 Max airplane and engaging in an effort to cover up their deception.”

Empirical research on bottom-line mentality suggests that these unethical actions may have been the result of the decision-makers’ bottom-line focus. For example, a study of full-time working adults, across various jobs and industries, revealed that employees who solely focus on bottom-line outcomes, like achieving job goals or attaining profits, are likely to engage in unethical behavior, such as sabotaging coworkers.

Consequently, this research suggests that a restaurant owner, who is solely focused on maintaining their business, may choose to continue to operate in ways that may put themselves or their employees in harm’s way. Their sole focus on maintaining their business pushes them to disregard their own safety and that of their employees. Or a lawmaker, who is exclusively focused on economic prosperity above all else, may refrain from taking actions that could save lives because of a disregard for their constituents’ physical well-being.

For many reasons, a focus on one’s bottom-line outcomes, such as financial success or economic prosperity, makes sense and can be quite beneficial. Many people tend to function more efficiently and effectively when they focus their attention on one paramount goal. Arguably, especially in business, first and foremost, there is a need to make a profit. A business cannot survive in the red, so a focus on maintaining the bottom line may be necessary. But what is important to note is that such a focus can become problematic if it is too myopic, such that bottom-line outcomes are the exclusive focus to the disregard of all else.

As a professor who readily studies the “dark side” of Organizational Behavior, my main goal, and that of my colleagues around the world, is to understand and figure out ways to improve “bad” behavior in organizations. If, for example, we can understand what drives unethical behavior, it can help us advise practitioners on how to curb this behavior. We are trying to identify why employees engage in unethical acts as a means of understanding how to prevent it.

Interestingly, much of our research on the “dark side” demonstrates that bad behavior in organizations is not necessarily the result of “bad apples.” In fact, research tells us that most people desire to do what’s “right,” but often are motivated by external or internal pressures to engage in the “wrong” course of action. Bottom-line mentality is one such pressure. People with bottom-line mentalities are not “bad apples,” and in many ways, their bottom-line focus may be justified. However, their tunnel vision focus on bottom-line objectives could get them into trouble by motivating them to engage in unethical acts.

Many decisions, especially in today’s world, are complex and multivalent, and making the “best” or “right” decision often requires a holistic view in which all aspects of the decision are taken into account. People who are prone to take on bottom-line mentalities need to recognize the potential pitfalls of such a tunnel vision focus. Managers need to be aware that aspects of their work environments, such as incentive programs for employees or even what they espouse, may in fact be driving a potentially problematic bottom-line focus in their employees.

The bottom line is certainly important and should be considered, but bottom-line success should not be pursued with a disregard for all else. Competing priorities, such as adhering to ethical standards, having concern for others’ well-being, or engaging in one’s civic duty, should not be ignored. In the end, these things can also have a huge impact on the bottom line.

Media interested in speaking with Mawritz should contact Niki Gianakaris, executive director of Media Relations, at or 215-895-6741.

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