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Organizational Ethics is one of the UvA Research Priority Areas. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers from across law, humanities and the social and behavioral sciences collaborates to understand structural harmful behavior in organizations.


Many of the biggest global challenges originate at least in part from unethical behavior and misconduct in organizations. Just consider the subprime loan sales by banks that caused the 2008 financial crisis, the sexual harassment as documented in the #MeToo scandals in public and private organizations that have forever scarred the lives of victims, and the continuing industrial pollution that destroys our natural resources, threatens public health, and contributes to climate change. After such incidents the conclusion is often similar: The organization (or sub-department) had developed a negative environment that came to sustain individual wrongdoing. Unfortunately, we still lack a scientific understanding of how organizations develop such negative environments and traits, and how this can be prevented from happening.

The main goal of this project is to develop an early warning system that allows regulators and regulated organizations to detect risks of negative organizational traits before these lead to harmful misconduct. As such, Organizational Ethics seeks to:

  • Systematically understand what organizational traits are at play in cases where organizations structurally engage in damaging misconduct, and how such traits develop and shape structural damaging misconduct in different organizational settings and different points in time;
  • Conduct case-studies, time-lagged field studies and experiments to analyze patterns of negative environments and traits in organizations, and develop a unique, interdisciplinary language and method of study to address unethical organizational traits;
  • Jointly with regulators develop tailor-made methods to diagnose risks of unethical behaviour in other regulated organizations where there is no indication of (structural) damaging misconduct yet;
  • Jointly with regulators from a broad range of domains co-develop processes and procedures in which such diagnostic methods can be applied effectively and fairly in the specific regulatory processes they operate and with the organizations they regulate.

Main projects

Mapping of existing knowledge about organizational traits and misconduct

With the literature searches, the research will first conceptualize what exactly should be studied to assess and diagnose organizational traits. Then it will collect insights from across the social and organizational sciences to identify indicators for any negative traits. Third, the team will collect and assess existing studies about ethical, unethical, and negative organizational cultures and climates.

Case studies 

Following the literature review, the project will conduct  case studies (using within-case analysis (process tracing) and across case comparison)  of organizations that have structurally engaged in damaging misconduct, to assess what elements in their organization came to sustain and promote such misconduct. The selected and analyzed cases will be collected in a database to be made accessible and used by the general public.

Time-lagged field studies and controlled experiments 

In experiments and time-lagged field studies, the directionality of relationships will be examined. Additionally, these methods provide opportunities to intervene in and shape social interactions by means of specific manipulations and validated training programs. The two sets of data will build on each other to offer an inductively grounded and deductive understanding of the social dynamics of how toxic culture develops and what is needed to prevent and curtail it.

Normative, legal, and regulatory analyses

Drawing on the case studies, field studies and experiments, the project will assess how the findings should be incorporated into organizational and regulatory rules, and related institutional arrangements.