Complicity Can Lead to Bad Business

When we know something is wrong and we ignore it, we are complicit in the consequences. History is full of examples in which complicity led to horrendous outcomes, but in today’s global marketplace, complicity involving bad business decisions comes at a great cost.

In his new book, Complicit: How We Enable the Unethical and How to Stop, Professor Max Bazerman of Harvard Business School focuses on Purdue Pharma’s knowledge of OxyContin’s addictiveness. Bazerman makes the point that many individuals within the organization knew about the drug’s likely effect on users but remained silent. They were complicit, and the outcome of their inaction has been disastrous to the public and costly to Purdue Pharma’s image and bottom line.

Human beings, Bazerman says, are prone to go along with transgressions made by others. However, consumers expect corporations to behave responsibly, so leaders and individuals must stop such misconduct before it can wreak havoc.

First comes understanding the nuances of complicity. There are “true partners,” or those who agree with the unethical values being perpetrated, and “collaborators,” who acquiesce for personal gain although they may not believe in the wrongdoer’s acts.

Examples of collaborators are not hard to find. Film industry personnel who witnessed women being harassed by men and did not intervene, Germans who did not believe in Nazism but remained silent, and the US Olympic Committee, which was aware that coach Larry Nasser was sexually abusing female athletes but kept him on. Similarly, working for a company when knowing that the organization is consciously destroying the environment can be viewed as an act of complicity.

Bazerman spells out strategies organizations can employ to create a workplace in which people feel safe to speak up when they witness wrongdoing. These include adding more decision-makers to avoid tunnel vision and implementing systems in which groups of people can freely protest unethical behavior.

Nevertheless, Bazerman contends, the bottom line is to be clear about one’s own ethical code and ask questions such as, Do I want to live with the fact that I could have done something when I saw XX being sexually harassed but didn’t? or Do I want to be part of an elitist system that promotes discrimination? or Do I want to work for a company that is contributing to environmental or human rights violations?

Being on the side of what is right and good is ultimately a personal choice, but it can impact an organization’s bottom line, too.


  1. How can complicity with an unethical policy affect a company’s image when that complicity is made public?
  2. How might diversity reduce complicity in the workplace?
  3. What possible ramifications face an employee who speaks up about an organization’s wrongdoing?

Source: Reynolds, P. (2022, November 15.) Stop ignoring bad behavior: 6 tips for better ethics at work. Harvard Business School Working Knowledge. Retried from

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