A strong organizational identity helps improve group cohesion, increase job performance and decrease turnover. But are there dangers to a strong identity? Could employees who identify strongly with their organizations act unethically?
Recent research by Dr. Elizabeth Umphress (Texas A&M University), Dr. John Bingham (Brigham Young University) and Dr. Marie Mitchell (University of Georgia) explored this question in two separate studies.
They found that employees who identify strongly with their organizations and feel indebted to the organization — for paycheques, years of employment or a friendly work environment — may make a number of unethical choices. In other words, employees who feel obliged to repay their employers may ignore environmental regulations in order to improve financial performance, withhold information about the downsides of a new software package from a customer, destroy incriminating documents or “cook” numbers in order to improve stock price.
In the situations studied, employees who committed unethical behaviour were not ordered to do so by their superiors. Instead, employees independently acted unethically because they identified strongly with their workplace and felt obligated to help. Ironically, this unethical behaviour may in fact harm the company in the long run. For example, misleading customers to increase short-term sales can drive them away and ignoring environmental regulations can lead to criminal investigations.
“... employees who identify strongly with their organizations and feel indebted to the organization ... may make a number of unethical choices.”
What can a manager do to prevent unethical behaviour that such a strong organizational identity can produce? By following these simple guidelines, managers can ensure their organization stays ethical and effective.
- Make ethics a central point of the organizational identity. Managers must create a culture and identity that emphasizes ethical behaviour. When ethical standards make up the organizational identity, employees are less likely to act unethically, benefiting the company.
- Pay special attention to employees who feel they owe something to the organization. These employees are most likely to act unethically inside organizations with a strong culture. So, managers should look out for employees who say they “owe something to the company” or “just want to return the favour after all the benefits I’ve gotten.”
- Act promptly to stop any instances of unethical pro-organizational behaviour. Finally, managers need to act promptly when they see unethical pro-organizational behaviour happening. Letting unethical behaviour slide sends the message that the behaviour is acceptable. Instead, managers must reiterate to employees that ethical standards are in place for a reason, and that even though it may seem beneficial to ignore them today, the company will ultimately suffer if ethical standards are allowed to slide.
Future research can investigate the causes of the unethical behaviours. Ultimately, understanding these motivations better will allow managers to more effectively avoid the unintended pitfalls of unethical behaviour meant to benefit the company.
Elizabeth E. Umphress, John B. Bingham, Marie S. Mitchell. (2010). Unethical Behavior in the Name of the Company: The Moderating Effect of Organizational Identification and Positive Reciprocity Beliefs on Unethical Pro-Organizational Behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 95(4), 769-780.
Patrick Shulist and the NBS team