What a person is currently doing at a particular time may influence his sense of right or wrong without the person even becoming aware of the shift in his moral integrity.
Focusing on dual-occupation professionals, the researchers found that engineers had one perspective on ethical issues, yet when those same individuals were in management roles, their moral compass shifted.
Likewise, medic/soldiers in the U.S. Army had different views of civilian casualties depending on whether they most recently had been acting as soldiers or medics.
In the study, lead author Keith Leavitt of Oregon State University found that workers who tend to have dual roles in their jobs would change their moral judgments based on what they thought was expected of them at the moment.
"When people switch hats, they often switch moral compasses," Leavitt said.
"People like to think they are inherently moral creatures - you either have character or you don't. But our studies show that the same person may make a completely different decision based on what hat they may be wearing at the time, often without even realizing it," he explained.
Leavitt said subtle cues - such as signage and motivation materials around the office - should be considered, along with more direct training that helps employees who juggle multiple roles that could conflict with one another.
The researchers conducted three different studies with employees who had dual roles. In one case, 128 U.S. Army medics were asked to complete a series of problem-solving tests, which included subliminal cues that hinted they might be acting as either a medic or a soldier.
No participant said the cues had any bearing on their behaviour - but apparently they did. A much larger percentage of those in the medic category than in the soldier category were unwilling to put a price on human life.
In another test, a group of engineer-managers were asked to write about a time they either behaved as a typical manager, engineer, or both. Then they were asked whether U.S. firms should engage in "gifting" to gain a foothold in a new market.
Despite the fact such a practice would violate federal laws, more than 50 percent of those who fell into the "manager" category said such a practice might be acceptable, compared to 13 percent of those in the engineer category.
"We find that people tend to make decisions that may conflict with their morals when they are overwhelmed, or when they are just doing routine tasks without thinking of the consequences," Leavitt said.
"We tend to play out a script as if our role has already been written. So the bottom line is, slow down and think about the consequences when making an ethical decision," he added.
The study will be published in a future issue of The Academy of Management Journal.