3 Reasons Employees Act Unethically

3 Reasons Employees Act Unethically

Employees’ ethics at work are driven by a complex set of individual, issue-specific, and environmental factors.
Bushra Tobah December 6, 2010
By recognizing the constellation of factors that shape employees’ ethical intentions, employers can create an environment that encourages ethical behaviour.


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


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:

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.


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.
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.

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