Civic Engagement

Lance Armstrong and the Contagion of Unethical Behavior

The dangers of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal reach far beyond performance-enhancing drugs.

When the news of Lance Armstrong’s doping allegations hit what we thought was the media and judicial nadir this summer, a friend of mine’s upstanding, informed, college-bound son irritably commented that he didn’t see the point of “all of this.” If everyone does it—and everyone does, according to him—why not legalize it? What he was saying, as many others have, is that taking performance-enhancing drugs has become normalized within our ethics framework—even though it is illegal and a clear violation of sporting event regulations.

Normalization of doping is a scary thought, but the real problem is actually much worse and more widespread than doping or any specific unethical practice. The real issue is contagion of unethical behavior generally. Not everyone negatively affected by, or drawn into, an ethical crisis similar to Lance Armstrong’s will engage in doping. However, many will engage in other forms of unethical behavior directly or indirectly related to the doping (the so-called “mafia”). Many more innocent bystanders will suffer consequences of the unethical behavior that traces back to the initial decision to dope.

How does this contagion happen? My current research focuses on understanding contagion of unethical behavior in different sectors (including corporations, funds, and nonprofit organizations). Unethical behavior is contagious within organizations and teams, within industries and sectors, and across sectors (including corporate, nonprofit, academic, governmental, and multilateral). It is a challenge for both civil society and government.

The multidimensional ripple effects of Lance Armstrong’s crisis (or Libor, Raj Gupta, African dictatorships, and others) are too numerous to list. While very grave, the most troubling effects are not related to the first-line perpetrators and victims—the coaches, doctors, sponsors, the US Postal Service, other athletes, the Tour de France event, the Olympics, other sporting events, the media, etc. Some of these were directly engaged in unethical behavior; most were victims.

Nor are the second and third line victims and perpetrators the most worrisome: the donors to the Livestrong Foundation and purchasers of Livestrong products in support of a supposedly ethical hero and winner; the taxpayers financing the legal proceedings; dedicated boards of corporate sponsors and the Livestrong Foundation; the cancer care community, which unwittingly used tainted funds for a good cause; the families of all of these; and countless others.

Rather, let’s consider how far contagion carries us. Children and teenagers feel emboldened to try potentially life-threatening drugs through illicit sources and without medical supervision. Early-stage queries (such as French newspaper L’Equipe’s accusations years ago) are dismissed in favor of a legendary reputation protected by financial power and fame. The slippery slope toward a culture normalizing cheating—or normalizing any unethical behavior—just because “everyone is doing it” becomes, well, normal.

At this stage of my research, I don’t yet have the explanations for the mechanisms of contagion or best prevention techniques, but here are a few blog-brief framework suggestions:

First, corporations should ensure more-nuanced ethics oversight (including on-going due diligence) than the standard up-front checks in connection with sponsorship, corporate social responsibility, and corporate philanthropy. This includes forward-looking, proactive measures to protect against contagion of unethical behavior internally and externally to beneficiaries of corporate engagements.

Second, nonprofit organizations should reinforce forward-looking ethics oversight at board and senior management levels. I do not advocate excessive risk aversion relating to potentially beneficial corporate engagement opportunities; the response to today’s relentless scandal-ridden headlines should be analysis with good judgment, not judgmental avoidance. The approach should not be blanket elimination of corporate engagement under the guise of independence. One key issue is the timing challenge of donor acceptance policies, such as when unethical behavior on the part of a corporate or individual donor surfaces after donor due diligence is complete (for example, Durham University’s acceptance of a major donation from a Kuwaiti prime minister who subsequently stepped down in response to corruption accusations).

Third, because no organization is immune to unethical behavior, both for-profit and nonprofit organizations should implement policies, incentive structures, and cultures rewarding rapid and responsible reactions to episodes of unethical behavior. Responsibility runs to the public, employees and volunteers, customers and beneficiaries, shareholders and donors, and those behaving unethically. Open acknowledgement and rapid response are essential to preventing the contagion “mafia”—along with zero tolerance for layers of lies.

Back to Lance Armstrong. I believe that the key to ending the contagion in this case is Lance Armstrong himself. There is an opportunity for him to be a real hero in the end. It will be far more complicated than the doping quagmire and require far more courage than the Tour de France. He must stop the contagion, starting by openly exposing all aspects of the unethical behavior and taking full responsibility for his part. Only then can potential remedies be explored and implemented. Only then can lessons be learned and applied to other types of unethical behavior in other areas of civil society.

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  • BY Julie Henszey

    ON October 29, 2012 03:49 PM

    Susan, what a great piece. You put into words the source of my underlying anxiety about the Armstrong scandal. I was talking to a person the other day who said, “I think the desire for justice is universal.” It’s interesting that there could co-exist this natural desire for justice and the ability for groups to normalize injustice. I’m equating injustice with unethical behavior, of course. I’m sure there’s a difference, although it seems that both create victims.

    I take clients to the Grand Canyon for a week of backpacking and reflection and I actually tried to get a hold of Armstrong for this purpose two weeks ago. I thought, “If I could get him out of his environment, away from the pressures to maintain a public identity of success and power, perhaps the quietness of the Canyon would give him time to find his own truth.” It would have been incredible if he’d received the request and taken me up on it.

    Thanks again for such a well-constructed piece.

  • BY David Langley

    ON October 30, 2012 06:06 AM

    A fascinating blog article which triggers two associations, one old and one new:

    Social-psychological researchers who experienced first-hand how bad behavior is contagious. Dijksterhuis and van Knippenberg, 1998, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

    “Some time ago, a few members of the Department of Social Psychology of the University of Nijmegen visited a soccer match. After they had parked their car, they walked the remaining mile to the stadium. The psychologists, behaving calmly and orderly as ever, were surrounded by hundreds of soccer fans and hooligans, many of whom were yelling and shouting. After some time, one of the members of the department engaged in somewhat unusual behavior. He saw an empty beer can, and, in what seemed to be an impulsive act, he kicked it as far away as possible. During the next few minutes, he and a slightly embarrassed colleague pondered on possible explanations.
    One explanation is that, upon seeing soccer hooligans, one may—without being aware of it—-start to act like them.”

    Very recently, research showing that firms, too, are not immune to transfering socially irresponsible practices. Surroca, Tribó and Zahra, forthcoming, Academy of Management Journal.


  • Thank you for writing this Susan…you have so well put in to words the very long reaching implications of unethical behavior and attitudes of acceptance that, unfortunately, are becoming more common place. You make the abstract much more concrete in this piece.
    If we can be of help in your research, please reach out to us at RideClean (on facebook).

  • Greg Morrison's avatar

    BY Greg Morrison

    ON December 27, 2012 12:34 PM

    Interesting and thought-provoking article Susan.  I have recently begun searching for practical information on ethics because our company is taking a more proactive approach to educating all of our employees and preparing them to recognize and address ethical issues appropriately.  The company has an ethics team and all employees are expected to complete ethics training each year, however, we are wanting to create a program that will be more substantive and have a greater impact.  We will be using internal training and ethics personnel to deliver the training, but are interested in finding good, foundational resources.  If you have any thoughts or ideas, or can point me in the right direction, it would be appreciated.

    Wishing you continued success and keep up the good work—the article is very well written and nicely constucted.


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