This is How Moral Licensing Hurts Diversity and Inclusion in the Company

Do you ever get the feeling that you deserve to unwind somehow, because you’ve been good recently? Say, you’ve earned the right to a cheat day because you’ve been following your diet and exercise for a week. Or you deserve a tipple or two because you’ve abstained from drinks for some time.

This is something, I think, that we’re all familiar with. And note—it’s not like it’s bad to treat yourself every so often. But if you always use your past actions or future plans as an excuse to engage in behavior that’s not good for you? You know that’s not right.

And the thing is, we always do this. We may not realize it, but we have multiple instances of bargaining with ourselves and justifying our bad decisions because we’ve made a few good ones. 

This is a phenomenon called moral licensing. 

And it’s something we’re going to talk about in full in this article, especially when considering its possible bad effects on diversity and inclusion.

What is moral licensing?

Okay, so first up, what exactly is moral licensing?

Simply put, it’s the process of bargaining with ourselves to justify some “bad” behavior we’re trying to do using past or future good actions. This concept actually explains why some people who are known to be morally upright in certain issues end up exhibiting problematic behavior.

And this isn’t an issue that only concerns the farthest ends of the spectrum—as in, doing what is extremely good and extremely evil. No. It manifests itself even in the most mundane things! That’s because we feel the need to morally license ourselves every time we do, or consider doing, something that isn’t necessarily according to our will.

For example, maybe you’ve promised yourself at the start of the year that you’re going to be healthier. For the most part, you’ve succeeded by managing your diet and exercising for the past few days. When you get the urge to do something unhealthy, say, eat pizza for dinner, you’ll want to convince yourself that you deserve eating that pizza. To do that, you’ll give the excuse of being true to your goals the past week, and treating yourself just this once. 

See, using this logic, you trick yourself into believing that it’s actually not that bad. You don’t feel guilty now about eating pizza, because your logic totally makes sense! You’ve been doing well with exercising after all, so what’s a few unhealthy meals, right? 

That’s moral licensing.

Specifically, the previous example exhibits one of the two ways to morally license your actions. It talks about how your past actions warrant a bad action you’re currently doing. You think you deserve it just because you’ve been good.

Another kind of moral licensing is, this time around, using future plans. Imagine: before the New Year, you’ve decided that 2021 is the year you’ll get fit. But, the week before the New Year is full of celebration! So, since you told yourself that you’ll be getting fit come the New Year anyway, you’ll feel like you deserve to enjoy all the food you can before the New Year comes! You end up overindulging in the “bad” behavior opposite of the good habit you’re trying to cultivate!

Those are the two faces of moral licensing that we typically employ. Let’s delve deeper into real-life examples.

Moral Licensing and Diversity and Inclusion 

Okay, so we know about moral licensing. What does that have to do about diversity and inclusion, you may ask. 

The thing about moral licensing is that it doesn’t stop with self-sabotaging behavior, like drinking or eating too much. The case of moral licensing often extends to how we deal with others, such as discriminatory and abusive behavior. This is exactly why we’ve heard of top celebrities speaking so openly about certain issues, only to be caught doing things exactly against their known stance!

For instance, men who openly claim to be feminists typically get accused with sexual harassment or sexual abuse charges. Celebrities who are known to donate to causes defending women’s rights, such as Harvey Weinstein, was later charged with sexual harassment of a lot of women he worked with! Even research studies show the same thing—people who explicitly disagreed about sexist hiring on paper still ended up choosing a man for a position typically dominated by men. 

As you can see, moral licensing is very much employed even when – and maybe especially because! – other people are directly affected by one’s actions. In the case of diversity and inclusion, it’s easy to imagine the same contradiction.

When companies have diversity and inclusion initiatives in place, it’s not hard to construe this as an active effort to be “good.” This means that, the company itself may use the establishment of these initiatives as an excuse to be discriminatory to their minority workers! We’re talking about passing them up for promotions, engaging in microaggressive behavior, or even deciding against hiring a perfectly qualified candidate because of their race or gender.

What’s more, the employees who begrudgingly attend seminars or talks on diversity and inclusion? They might find themselves doing enough good for a day, and later on be even more alienating to their peers from minority groups. You’ll see this in employees who talk down to their minority peers, or to leaders who don’t listen to the inputs of those who don’t come from the majority.

Generally, when companies think “diversity and inclusion,” it’s almost always just a conversation on how many more minority individuals they can hire. Always about statistics, but never about how their current minority professionals actually feel. And that’s exactly the danger of falling into the trap of moral licensing—thinking that being diverse is enough, and you’ve done enough good for minorities already, that you actively ignore their other needs.

As you can see, there are a whole lot of challenges that come with making the workplace diverse and inclusive. And sometimes, we ourselves might just be the hindrance towards that goal. The challenge is not to count the good we’ve done for minorities, so that we can excuse our bad actions—instead, let’s work towards making them feel welcome, as our peers in an organization we simply want the best for.

Dr. Cherry

Cherry A. Collier, Ph.D. is an Organizational Psychologist, Strategist, Executive Coach, and Diversity, Inclusion, & Belonging Consultant for Personality Matters, Inc. Her science-based approach and brain-based techniques, propel people, teams, and organizations to build bridges and work from the inside out to achieve their goals. Dr. Cherry specializes in emotional intelligence, neuroscience, leadership development, and DEI Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. She received her Doctorate and Master of Science in Applied Social/Organizational Psychology from the University of Georgia and Graduated Magna Cum Laude from Spelman College. She is the author of more than twenty-five Human Behavior related books for leaders, executives, and coaches. Dr. Cherry is often called the DEI Whisperer because she has a unique ability to fiercely “hold the space” and be totally present which creates a psychologically safe environment that allows others all the space they need to fully express themselves. She listens to others with head, heart and hands approach so that they are heard, seen and understood.