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Employees Act Unethically When They Think It Benefits Employers

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Have you ever had a conversation with a potential vendor or consultant about a specific service need or product specification? The salesperson ensures you that they have the precise experience and know-how to meet your needs only to later find out that they did not, and the work falls short of expectations. This is an example of the classic “over-promise, under-deliver” problem that many of us had to deal with. While the sales agent’s exaggerations are helping to make a sale, they are also dishonest and undermine the fundamental expectations of the provider-customer relationship.

These actions are referred to as unethical pro-organization behavior (UPB) because they are aimed at benefiting one’s employer by promoting the organization’s success while also violating societal values, morals, laws or standards of proper conduct. Other examples include misrepresenting the organization, concealing potentially negative information or withholding a credit due.

A recent study co-authored by Christian J. Resick, PhD, associate professor of management at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, found that employees are more likely to engage in this type of behavior when they work in departments with egoistic norms. 

“We found that egoistic norms not only encourage self-interest behavior but also fail to provide comprehensive moral knowledge regarding the impact of UPB on external stakeholders,” said Resick. “Employees are discouraged from considering the complex ethical implications of their actions and are prone to make faulty ethical judgements of behaviors that benefit internal stakeholders, including themselves. As a result, employees are less likely to judge such actions as ethically inappropriate.”

A salesperson that exaggerates a consulting team’s capabilities, for example, may gain a new client in the short-term but damage the firm’s reputation and ability to gain new clients in the long-term. Similarly, a customer service representative may believe that not issuing a refund due to a customer helps the company’s bottom line. But, in reality the customer may stop doing business there or even turn to social media to vent.

The study also looked at organizational identification—or how much employees view their organization’s success as their own. They found that employees who strongly identify with their employer are more likely to view UPB as ethically appropriate and engage in these behaviors.

“Organizations align personal goals for employees with the organization’s interests as a way to encourage behaviors that benefit the organization,” said Resick.

According to Resick, employees with high levels of organizational identification show a decrease in moral sensitivity to the broader implications of UPB while those who don’t identify as strongly with their organization are more likely to consider competing information that would signal the unethical implications of UPB.

“While acts of UPB may initially benefit both the organization and its members, these benefits are short-sighted and place the organization at risk for customer loss, reputational damage or even litigation,” he said.  “This study highlights the importance of taking steps to increase employees’ moral sensitivity to the implications of UPB to both internal and external stakeholders to enhance moral knowledge and motivate employees to resistance opportunities for such behavior.”

Katrina A. Graham of Suffolk University, Jaclyn A. Margolis of Pepperdine University, Ping Shao of California State University in Sacramento, Michael B. Hargis of the University of Central Arkansas and Jason D. Kiker of Drexel University contributed to the research.

The paper is forthcoming in Human Relations and is available at this link.

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