Corruption in English Football: What lessons can organisations learn from it?

The City of London Police announced they will be launching an investigation into corruption in football. This was in response to the Daily Telegraph’s claim of Premier League managers (current or former) having taken bribes while buying and selling players.

To many fans the allegations held against those honoured with managing the teams they love are surprising. However, with an understanding of the psychology of behavioural ethics, it shouldn’t be a great surprise as these individuals operate in an environment consisting of many of the factors understood to promote the growth of unethical behaviour. So what are these factors that can be hypothesised to account for the turn to corruption, not just for football managers but for the individuals of any organisation and how can we reduce their effect?

The root of all evil

  • With Paul Pogba returning to Manchester United for a fee of £89.3m, while Premier League spending reached £1.165bn the same summer, it is evident that English football now increasingly exists in a culture of which money is ever salient.
  • It therefore comes as little surprise that we can place money atop of the list of factors influencing unethical behaviour. This theory is supported in research conducted by Kouchaki, Smith-Crowe, Brief & Sousa (2013). They demonstrated that the mere-presence of money as an environmental cue leads to motivate the objectification of others, with self-interest pursued over the interests that are not in line with our own.
  • Kouchaki et al. (2013) proposes that a lesson must be taken from their research: “that organisations be aware of the potential of environmental cues (such as money) influencing employees’ unconscious ethical behaviour”. Therefore, rather than assuming employees’ awareness of the ethical reality of their decisions, leaders should highlight what are the potential moral obstacles related to their organisation functioning as a business e.g. for a football manger, taking bungs.


  • It is easy to entertain the idea that there are few jobs more stressful than to manage a failing football club. This can be seen to arise though the pressure to perform applied by fans, board members, and media, while your peers are sacked (their reputation in tatters) around you.
  • Research by Kouchaki & Desai (2015) demonstrated a mechanism connecting anxiety to unethical behaviour. In this experiment it was shown that anxiety leads to cognitive resources to be temporarily diverted to our own basic needs and self-interests (e.g. money). Therefore, we are less mindful of principles that guide ethical behaviour, thus, increasing the likelihood of such behaviour occurring.
  • The need to reduce the anxiety levels of employees is already a practice for many organisations. This is seen in the introduction of flexi-hours, playful furniture, sponsoring gym-memberships and realistic expectations etc. The adoption of such anxiety-reducing practices may indirectly reduce unethical behaviour in organisations.

Justification though upward social comparisons

  • According to the Daily Express, in the English top flight, the highest paid manager (Pep Guardiola) is on £15,000,000 for his services while the lowest (Aitor Karanka) is on £355,000. There is therefore an apparent and large pay gap.
  • The potential relationship between this inequality and corruption was highlighted by John, Loewenstein & Rick (2013). They demonstrated that by increasing the attention paid to upward social comparisons (in relation to pay rates) they would also observe an increase in unethical behaviour in those “looking up”. This is believed to occur as the perceived inequality allows the individual to rationalise their own wrong-doings as required to close the gap. This observation can be seen to support the notion of fair and equal wages within all organisations as the effects of inequality of pay can have unexpected and costly consequences.
  • This blog is not seeking to relinquish accountability against those who are found to be guilty of corruption,rather, it aims to highlight that the problems do not just lie with the accused. Instead we can observe that there are a number of psychological influences (of which three are mentioned here) which can be seen to have developed as a result of the way an organisation is run. Once understood, the effects of such psychological phenomena can be mitigated and managed. If done this can lead to a reduction in unethical behaviour not just for English football but for other at risk organisations.


John, K. L., Loewenstein, G., Rick, S. I. (2014) Cheating more for less: Upward social comparisons motivate the poorly compensated to cheat. Organizational behaviour and human decision processes, 123, 101–109. 
Kouchaki, M., Desai, S. D. (2015). Anxious, threatened, and also unethical: How anxiety makes individuals feel threatened and commit unethical acts. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100, 360–375.
Kouchaki, M., Smith-Crowe, K., Brief, A. P., Sousa, C. (2013). Seeing green: Mere exposure to money triggers a business decision frame and unethical outcomes. Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, 121, 53–61.

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