No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Making Sense of Unseemly Behavior in Organizations

Sociologist Barry Turner studied so-called “unseemly behavior” in organizations in order to analyze the causes and consequences of errors. Unseemly behavior in organizations is different from “human error” that is often seen as an unchangeable aspect of human nature. Large-scale disasters often result from a complex chain of errors and deviations from accepted standards, which highlights the challenge of managing such events within organizations. "Unseemly behavior" connects errors to cultural norms and societal expectations. This perspective allows for a more in-depth investigation of errors in a cultural context.

Prolonged Development and Multifaceted Errors in Major Disasters

Turner’s analysis is based on evidence from public inquiries into accidents over an eleven-year period, that reveal that major disasters require more time to develop and involve a greater number of errors compared to smaller accidents. Errors occurring at different levels of an organization's hierarchy have varying consequences, with higher-level errors often leading to more far-reaching and complex unintended outcomes. Turner describes a planful hierarchy within organizations, where errors can occur at various levels, from physical slips to errors in decision-making processes. Errors within organizations follow certain patterns, which are influenced by the organization's structure and hierarchy.

The process of identifying and excusing "unseemly behavior"

The definition of unseemly behavior can vary depending on social judgment, and the identification of what is considered unseemly behavior may not always be straightforward. In some cases, the determination of whether an act constitutes unseemly behavior depends on the reputation of the individuals involved or preconceived assumptions about the impropriety of the action. For example, high status or authority can serve as an excuse, but repeated improprieties can erode such excuses.

Factors Influencing the Perception of Unseemly Behavior

Various factors may serve as justifications for unseemly behavior, including temporary incapacity due to illness, injury, or intoxication, as well as normal ignorance or evidence of provocation or distraction. Sociologist Erving Goffman's work on processes of dissociation is important in understanding these excuses for or reinterpretations of unseemly behavior.

Performance Errors vs. Situational Errors

Turner distinguishes between performance errors and situational errors in organizations. Some organizations adapt by accommodating certain mistakes as part of their structural setting. Organizations define and manage errors to protect themselves and individuals from litigation. Unseemly behavior can sometimes be categorized as bad or immoral when it is intentional and cannot be easily explained. But isolated inexplicable errors don’t necessarily indicate irrationality or craziness on the part of individuals involved.

Task Types and Their Perception by Observers

Some tasks have predictable outcomes (rock-like links), while others have unpredictable outcomes (superstitious or chance-based links). Unseemly behavior in the former is often attributed to incompetence or lack of attention, while in the latter, it's challenging to define as unseemly. Tasks can be categorized into three types: routine tasks with predictable outcomes, chance-based tasks with random outcomes, and tasks requiring skill with partially determinable outcomes. Organizations and individuals within them engage in activities analogous to these different types of tasks, and unseemly behavior is managed in each context.

Breakdowns in Social Control Systems and Unseemly Events

Unseemly events in organizations result from breakdowns in social control systems, and proper individuals distance themselves from such events while offering excuses or explanations. Certain types of unseemly behavior may be related to uncertainty and the nature of the task being performed within the organization.


Turner, B.A. (1983), Making Sense of Unseemly Behavior in Organizations, In: Int. Studies of Man. & Org., Vol. XIII, No. 3, pp. 164-181 M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1983.

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