Author’s Note: This post has some potentially unsettling sections that describe genocide. If you are easily upset, you may wish to skip it.

Every day at work we are confronted with ethical dilemmas. Most are so trivial that we tend to not even consider them ethical questions at all (example: should I tell a white lie to a vendor?). But perhaps more frequently than we realize, we are forced to make moral choices that can have significant impacts on our business, partners, and employees.

Consider, for example, an employee who rejects a perfectly good insurance claim because his boss told him to increase his rejection rate. Or the boss who tells his subordinate to do a task, then blames/fires the employee when it turns out the task was a bad business decision. Or the vendor who makes a verbal promise to get a contract signed, but then claims he never made the promise when the other party desperately needs that promise to save their skin.

Your retort to such scenarios may be ‘it’s just business,’ but there is no doubt that such actions have moral implications. The ethical decisions we make at work can cost people their jobs and cost businesses money. With a single decision, we can ruin lives forever.

Ethics and Genocide: Why Did Ordinary Germans Kill?

In college, I wrote my thesis paper on the representation of the Holocaust at the Nuremberg Trials – the post World War II military tribunals for Nazi war criminals. In the course of my research, I did a lot of reading about genocide. Specifically, about how people – mostly ordinary people – end up participating in mass atrocities.

How is it that humans can be motivated to murder millions of their other humans? And why is it that despite the credo “Never Again”, we continue to see genocide reoccur again and again? Since World War II, millions have died in genocides across many continents. Cambodia, Rwanda, Serbia, Darfur – the genocides never stop. Never Again has unfortunately become Over and Over Again.

We like to comfort ourselves into thinking that genocide is committed by insane homicidal maniacs. Consider, for example, Hollywood’s depiction of genocide: Ralph Fienes as the alcoholic/schizophrenic concentration commandant in Schindler’s List, or George Rutaganda, the alcoholic, crazy, gun-running leader in Hotel Rwanda. These aren’t your next door neighbors, these are maniacs!

The truth, unfortunately, is much different that we’d like to believe. Despite poorly formed arguments to the contrary, most German soldiers working at concentration camps weren’t zealous members of the Nazi party, or crack SS or Gestapo units, or the most anti-Semitic soldiers the Nazis could find. Instead, they were just ordinary Germans doing a job. Not unlike American soldiers in Iraq, many were reservists who would have rather been spending the war back home in their small towns.

It turns out that the factors that caused ordinary Germans to perform extraordinarily unethical acts are no different than the pressures one encounters in the modern workplace. And while the outcomes of unethical behavior in the workplace are not generally as heinous as those of a Nazi soldier, the same pressures lead modern workers to commit immoral acts.

There are six factors that led ‘ordinary Germans’ to commit extraordinary crimes, and it’s easy to see how the same six factors could drive generally ethical workers to act highly unethically.

Factor #1: Obedience to Authority

In any military organization, enlistees are taught at training camp that they must follow orders from above. An army cannot function if it is made up of individuals and their personal opinions for what should or should not be done on the battlefield.

If the benefit of obedience is operational efficiency, the disadvantage is that it leads people to act without necessarily thinking of the consequences. In Stanley Milgram’s infamous psychology experiments in the 1960s, actors posing as scientists (by simply wearing lab coats) got average people to administer life-threatening electric shocks to other people (unbeknownst to the test subjects, the shocks weren’t real and the other subjects were actors), simply by countering any hesitation with the comment “the experiment requires that you continue.” With the explicit approval of a ‘scientist’, the participants continued to lethally shock others.

The frequent retort from Nazi soldiers during the Nuremberg Trials was “I was just following orders.” Indeed, even Adolf Eichmann, the mastermind of the “Final Solution” made this claim at his trial in Jerusalem.

Legally, the argument of ‘just following orders’ fails, simply because soldiers are trained to disobey orders to act illegally. In reality, however, it is very difficult for most people to refuse requests from authority. In the army, a refusal to obey could lead to a court martial or assignment to a more dangerous job. The sad truth for Germans soldiers was that, for many, working at a concentration camp was safer than being on the Eastern Front fighting the Russians.

In a work environment, disobeying orders can also have negative consequences. It can mean that you are passed over for a promotion, uncomfortable tension in the workplace, and even termination. Add to this the natural instinct to assume that an order from above must be ethical (the Milgram Experiment) and it is not surprising to see seemingly ethical people acting unethically when commanded to do so by their supervisor.

Factor #2: Peer Pressure

Humans are social animals and the term “monkey see, monkey do” resonates well with our species. When we see others doing (or not doing) something, we tend to assume that it is acceptable for us to do this as well.

In another sad page in human history, in 1964 a woman was stabbed to death on a public street. There were 38 onlookers, none of whom bother to intervene or call the police. This horrible incident prompted new concept, “the bystander effect” – “a psychological phenomenon in which someone is less likely to intervene in an emergency situation when other people are present and able to help than when he or she is alone.”

The inverse of the do-nothing bystander would be the mob mentality, where the actions of others spur individuals to do things they would otherwise not do.

In battle, soldiers often note that their immediate allegiance is not to their country but rather to their fellow soldiers. Soldiers tend to develop strong ties with their battalion (in particular when they have all shared a traumatic experience together). To do something contrary to what other soldiers are doing (whether that is humanitarian aid or a mass atrocity) would be letting down your peers. As amazing as it seems, something as seemingly innocuous as peer pressure can lead individuals to commit horrible acts.

At work, most employees tend to also develop bonds with their co-workers. In a situation when other team members are all doing something that a particular employee may instinctively consider as unethical, individual insecurity usually leads the employee to conclude that ‘if everyone else is doing it, it must be OK.’

Factor #3: The Division of Labor

Adolf Eichmann did not personally kill any Jews. He did, however, draft orders that led others to schedule trains that led others to create concentration camps that led others to lead Jews into gas chambers. Division of labor adds efficiency but it also blurs moral responsibility. Eichmann, as noted above, felt that he was just ‘doing his job.’ In his mind, he was nothing more than a glorified paper-pusher.

Hannah Arendt wrote in her outstanding book Eichmann in Jerusalem, that the definition of bureaucracy is “rule by nobody.” In other words, when something bad happens, nobody is responsible, it is always someone else’s fault. In Nazi Germany, many thousands of Germans directly or indirectly facilitated the death of six million Jews. Few saw themselves as actually being accountable for this atrocity. Instead, they were just doing their specific job.

In modern workplaces, we face the same issues. We are given parts of a problem to solve, but we often don’t know what the whole problem is in the first place. A young lawyer, for example, may be asked to write a memo regarding a legal issue, but have no idea what case the memo will actually be used for. A machinist may be asked to construct a metal casing, but have no idea that that casing will be used for a nuclear bomb.

As our work becomes more complex and matrixed, our individual responsibility for a particular outcome lessens. Who was responsible for the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal? The wanton lying at Enron? Few employees of either company are likely to feel that they should accept blame.

Factor #4: The Slippery Slope

I recently heard an interview on NPR with Bud Krogh, one of the convicted burglars from the Watergate scandal. He’s recently written a book with the title: Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices. In the interview, Bud talked about how he initially joined the Nixon administration with the best intentions, but gradually ended up breaking numerous laws and going to prison.

The gradual decline into unethical behavior is what we call the “slippery slope.” In the aforementioned Milgram Experiment, the test always began by asking the subject to administer a very light shock, following by a slightly stronger shock, and so on until the subject was at a lethal level.

In Nazi Germany, the slippery slope began with anti-Jewish rhetoric, then anti-Jewish laws, then deportation of Jews to ghettos, then deportation to concentration camps, and then extermination. There’s a time period of about seven years between the first anti-Jewish laws and the first mass exterminations.

In many genocides, it turns out that the first step toward genocide is dehumanizing the victims. In Germany, the Jews were called “vermin.” In Rwanda, the Tutsis were called “cockroaches” (in a related story, the Australian opposition party wants to charge Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with “inciting genocide,” in part, for “questioning whether Zionists are human beings”). It is hard to get anyone to kill innocent civilians, but with years of conditioning and a slippery slope of moral decay, it gradually becomes much easier.

In the workplace, we face the slippery slope all the time. In a law journal article, David Luban describes how an initially ethical young lawyer can be quickly transformed into an unethical actor:

Every litigation associate goes through a right of passage: She finds a document that seemingly lies squarely within the scope of legitimate discovery request, but her supervisor tells her to devise an argument to exclude it. As long as the argument isn’t frivolous, there is nothing improper about this, but it marks the first step onto the slippery slope. . . Soon, if the lawyer isn’t very careful, every damaging request seems too broad or too narrow; every smoking-gun document is either work product or privileged; no adversary ever has a right to “my” documents. At that point the fatal question is not far away: Is lying really so bad when it is the only way to protect “my” documents from an adversary who has no right to them?

Factor #5: Distance from Victim

One of the most morally frightening aspects of modern warfare is our ability to kill at a distance. We can launch missiles from a ship far out at sea and hit a precise target hundreds of miles inland. We can send robotic drones into a battle and use a remote control to shoot at the enemy.

Technology enables modern-day soldiers to kill without personally doing the killing. While the outcome makes war safer for the particular soldier controlling the technology, it also makes it much more difficult for the soldier to understand the connection between his actions and another human’s death.

The Nazis learned this lesson during the Holocaust as well. Initially, Jews were killed by roving extermination squads who literally lined victims up over a ditch and shot them point blank. Recognizing that many of their soldiers felt uneasy about this task, the Germans ‘innovated’ and created gas vans which were essentially vans with the exhaust pipe redirected to the back of the truck were the victims were placed. Still, the drivers of the trucks could hear the victims’ screams.

The Germans eventually came up with the gas chamber. All that was required was for a soldier to drop a can of Zyclon B into a little slot at the top of the chamber and close the latch. The connection between the individual and killing had almost completely been eliminated.

In pre-industrial America, most jobs were local. You sold your crops to your neighbors, you went into to town to have a suit made for you. The industrial revolution changed that. You worked for a big anonymous factory and goods were shipped in from around the country. Globalization has taken the industrial revolution one step further, as we export technology and import raw materials.

And now the Internet has enabled us to quickly interact with millions of people without every having to even look them in the eye. If we provide poor customer service to someone, lie about a product, or write confusing user agreements that enable us to capture and distribute their personal information, we never really think of these actions as hurting an individual.


This has been the longest post I’ve ever written, so I’m impressed if anyone has made it this far into the document.

If it isn’t abundantly clear already, let me just state for the record that the Holocaust was a horrific event on a scale that will hopefully never be duplicated. In contrasting the actions of German soldiers to every day moral dilemmas, in no way do I mean to belittle the magnitude of the Holocaust. Hopefully that is clear.

The point I’ve tried to make throughout this piece is that humans, by nature, are susceptible to pressures that lead us to make unethical decisions. In extreme cases, these pressures lead us to kill innocent people. In less extreme cases, they lead us to hurt people and companies through our businesses.

In your day to day work (or personal life for that matter), you are confronted with many decisions – some seemingly little, some quite large – that have moral consequences. The easy thing to do is to look for the easy way out. That may mean following your boss’ orders, doing what your co-workers do, assuming that your action will not matter anyway, or just refusing to make the connection between your action and an outcome.

The harder thing to do is to stop, consider the consequences, and do what you think it actually right. It’s often not in our human nature to do just that.


This blog post was influenced by two incredible books that, although somewhat academic, are worth reading if you want to learn more:

Modernity and the Holocaust, by Zygmaut Bauman

Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe under Nazi Occupation, by Isiah Trunk

I also wrote an extensive paper on this in law school. If you’d like to read it, send me an email and I’ll send it to you.


  1. Steve October 3rd, 2007

    Think what you will of Warren Buffet, but I’m impressed by his ability to distill principles of ethical behavior into very simple tests are easy to remember and apply. His “newspaper test” (would you act this way if the public, your friends and family were going to read about it in the paper tomorrow?) is famous because it is simple and effective.In a note to Berkshire managers, he also shared his thoughts on the “everyone else is doing it,” rationale you describe. His point here resonated with me – he suggested that this rationale is not just a bad reason to conclude an action is ethical. In his words, it’s actually “a huge red flag.” If “everyone else does it” is the primary reason offered up to convince you that something is ethical (or even just a good idea, for that matter), it means that the person offering it can’t think of a good reason, which makes it much more likely that there isn’t one.Not rocket science, but useful to me because it’s simple and it sticks. Thanks Warren – because of you I’m confident I can resolve ethical conundrums without reading Dave’s law school papers.

  2. Windyridge October 12th, 2007

    Ever read any of Jared Diamond’s books? He postulates that men have been committing genocide since day 1. It’s in the genes he says. Fascinating books.

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David Rodnitzky
David Rodnitzky is founder and CEO of 3Q Digital (formerly PPC Associates), a position he has held since the Company's inception in 2008. Prior to 3Q Digital, he held senior marketing roles at several Internet companies, including (2000-2001), FindLaw (2001-2004), Adteractive (2004-2006), and Mercantila (2007-2008). David currently serves on advisory boards for several companies, including Marin Software, MediaBoost, Mediacause, and a stealth travel start-up. David is a regular speaker at major digital marketing conferences and has contributed to numerous influential publications, including Venture Capital Journal, CNN Radio, Newsweek, Advertising Age, and NPR's Marketplace. David has a B.A. with honors from the University of Chicago and a J.D. with honors from the University of Iowa. In his spare time, David enjoys salmon fishing, hiking, spending time with his family, and watching the Iowa Hawkeyes, not necessarily in that order.