Why Employees Do Bad Things
Reports from the IRS estimate that the U.S. government loses $10.5 billion dollars a year to tax evasion. Reports from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners show that $87 billion dollars is lost annually to global fraud. Clearly these losses, and many others of similar size, that occur as a result of employee or consumer theft, are anything but trivial. What causes such deviance, and is there a way for organizations to identify and even prevent it from happening?
Recent research from a professor at the Penn State Smeal College of Business examines the cognitive process behind unethical behavior to better understand organizationally embedded deviance.
Linda Treviño, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behavior and Ethics, and co-authors Celia Moore of the London Business School, James Detert of Cornell University, Vicki Baker of Albion College, and David Mayer of University of Michigan propose that an important driver of unethical behavior is an individual’s propensity to morally disengage. The researchers suggest that there is a cognitive difference among those inclined to morally disengage that affects the way they mentally process ethical decisions, which leads them to behave dishonorably without feeling distress. The researchers rely on Bandura’s theory of self-regulation, which suggests that moral behavior is generally self-regulated by internalized moral standards that keep behavior in line. But, when this self-regulation process is interrupted and these moral standards are disengaged, individuals can be unethical without feeling guilty.
“The workplace provides ample opportunities for moral disengagement,” the researchers write. “Organizations tend to be hierarchical and work is often undertaken by teams.”
This leads to the use of moral disengagement mechanisms such as displacement (to authority figures) and diffusion (to team members) of responsibility. Given that stakeholders who are affected by employee decisions may be distant or members of outgroups, it can be easy to minimize consequences, or blame or dehumanize victims. Euphemistic language is also often used in place of stronger ethical language in order to dull the moral intensity of an issue.
Developing a measure of moral disengagement, the researchers conducted four studies spanning laboratory and field settings. The researchers then demonstrated that the propensity to morally disengage predicts several different outcomes, including self-reported unethical behavior, co-worker and supervisor-reported unethical behaviors, decisions to commit fraud, and self-serving decisions in the workplace.
“Collectively, our findings establish the pervasive predictive power of the propensity to morally disengage,” the researchers write. “Practitioners can use study results to better understand and potentially reduce unethical behavior.”
For instance, it could be quite beneficial to train employees to be on the lookout for certain modes of thinking (e.g., “I have to do it because my boss said so”) so that they can catch themselves or others before unethical behavior occurs.
Organizations might also consider instituting a variety of measures designed to reduce the likelihood that morally disengaged reasoning goes unchecked. For example, leaders can increase individual accountability, lessening the extent to which employees can use diffusion of responsibility and putting blame onto others as justification for bad behavior. Leaders can likewise clearly encourage the use of ethical language and discourage the acceptance of euphemisms that cloud judgments. And, leaders can make harm to other stakeholders more real to employees, so that dehumanization or blame for “bringing harm onto themselves” is less likely.
The study, "Why Employees Do Bad Things: Moral Disengagement and Unethical Organizational Behavior,” was recently published in Personnel Psychology.