Commentary: R Kelly case shows workplace abuse is often enabled by complicit co-workers

HALIFAX, Canada: R&B singer R Kelly was found guilty of racketeering and sex trafficking charges on Monday (Sep 27), having been exposed as the ringleader of a decades-long scheme to recruit girls, boys and women to have sex with.

During the six-week long trial, jurors heard harrowing testimony from a succession of survivors of Kelly’s abuse. Witnesses also revealed how members of the 54-year-old’s entourage assisted, enabled and helped cover up the singer’s crimes.

The patterns revealed in Kelly’s trial are classic examples of how unethical, even criminal, conduct can persist in organisations for long periods of time, often as an open secret and supported by others.


Unethical and illegal behaviour – from fraud to sexual harassment – have been examined at sectors including business, journalism, health care, sports and government. Despite policies and laws designed to prevent it, such behaviour is rife in many organisations.

While there is a tendency to focus on the “bad apple” – the perpetrators and their despicable behaviour – in cases of unethical behaviour, we need to look beyond the individual to understand how and why unethical behaviour thrives and persists.

Perpetrators, such as Kelly, do not act alone. They tend to have active enablers – groups we call “networks of complicity” who support the abuse in various ways. They also have passive enablers – groups we label “networks of complacency” who turn a blind eye to what is happening.

In all workplaces, people are embedded in networks of social relationships that they value and want to maintain. However, if someone falls prey to the charms of a predator – usually powerful men, such as Kelly – they gradually lose their perspective.

Their desire to be part of the team comes to dominate other considerations, including norms of ethical behaviour.

These enablers often do not intend to do bad things, but bad behaviour is contagious and biases can blind them to their own increasingly bad conduct. They are also subject to situational and organisational pressures, like conforming with others or trying to please powerful figures.

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