3 Reasons Employees Act Unethically

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Employees’ ethics at work are driven by a complex set of individual, issue-specific, and environmental factors. By recognizing the constellation of factors that shape employees’ ethical intentions, employers can create an environment that encourages ethical behaviour.

Background

Unethical intentions and behaviour can be driven by individual, issue-specific, and environmental factors:

  • Bad apples (individual factors): Employees who obey authority figures’ unethical directives or act merely to avoid punishment. They manipulate others for their own personal gain, fail to see the connection between their actions and outcomes, and believe that ethical choices are driven by circumstance.
  • Bad cases (issue-specific factors): Issues can vary in the degree of harm they impose on the victim, and on the degree of agreement among peers.
  • Bad barrels (environmental factors): Environments that encourage individualistic behaviour as opposed to a climate that emphasizes doing what is best for other employees, customers, and the community.

Findings

When it comes to individual employee characteristics, the greatest predictor of unethical behaviour is an employee’s emphasis on self-gain. That is, tendency to use interpersonal relationships opportunistically and have less concern about consequences for others. Unethical behaviour also increases when employees feel that their actions will not harm a potential victim and that their peers will not condemn their actions. They will engage in more unethical behaviour when the company promotes an “everyone for him or herself” atmosphere instead of an environment that focuses employee attention on the company’s stakeholders.

Although some studies suggested employees’ age, gender, and educational levels matter, there was little systematic support for these relationships. The existence of a code of conduct does not curb unethical actions, however enforcement of such a code does. Codes of conduct have become so common that they have lost their potency; thus, only properly enforced codes influence ethical conduct.

Implications for Managers

There are several ways to reduce the likelihood that your employees will behave unethically:

  • Hire your employees based on rigorous selection tests. Base these tests on the “bad apple” criteria to weed out potential hires who: obey authority figures’ unethical directives or act merely to avoid punishment, manipulate others for their own personal gain, fail to see the connection between their actions and outcomes, and believe that ethical choices are driven by circumstance.
  • Link unethical behaviour to the harm it causes. Show employees the serious impact of unethical behaviour on a specific victim that employees recognize.
  • Enforce a code of conduct that prominently reinforces and defines behavioural norms.
  • Leaders need to model good behavior and HR systems must reward such behavior in order to create a strong ethical corporate culture.

Implications for Researchers

Researchers may investigate the extent to which self-interest is the key driver behind “bad apples” at work. They may also examine the degree to which moral issues can be made salient to employees (for example, via personal contact with potential victims). Finally, future scholars should explore how managers can effectively enforce codes of conduct.

Methods

These findings come from the meta-analysis of 136 studies in the behavioural ethics domain. The scholars who conducted this analysis compiled and coded the studies, included their dependant variables, and then used two meta-analysis procedures for creating and cumulating correlations.

Source

Kish-Gephart, J., David A. Harrison, and Linda Klebe Treviño. (2010) Bad apples, bad cases, and bad barrels: Meta-analytic evidence about sources of unethical decisions at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(1): 1-31.

Summarized by

Bushra Tobah & The Network Team