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Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for leaders to ask their employees to cross ethical lines. Consider the following examples from a pilot study we recently conducted: A sales representative at a retail company was asked to grant credit approval to unqualified customers who were friends of her supervisor; a field technician at a communications company was asked by management to close telephone repair tickets for elderly customers whose phones were not fixed; and an engineer in the transportation industry was asked to approve projects that he felt were at risk for structural failure.
Examples like these exist in myriad settings. In a global survey of over 13,000 employees, a median of 22% of respondents across sectors reported feeling pressure to compromise standards at work.1 In our recent research, which includes several survey-based studies as well as laboratory experiments, we found that such pressure often comes from being specifically asked to engage in behavior that is unethical or morally questionable — what we refer to as receiving an unethical request.
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However, while leaders may make unethical requests in an effort to enhance short-term results, for instance, or to gain personal benefits, those who make them run the risk of negatively affecting their employees’ motivation and task performance over the long term. Here, we’ll discuss why asking people to cut ethical corners can backfire in the long run and explain how that effect played out in our research.
Why Motivation and Performance Can Suffer
Employees who receive an unethical request at work may feel trapped. On the one hand, if they comply with the request, their behavior may lead to feelings of guilt or regret. Most people have an inherent desire to view themselves as good, moral individuals, and acting in ways that violate their own values is threatening to the way they want to think about themselves.2 Complying with an unethical request can also induce a fear of getting caught and punished. On the other hand, in refusing to comply, especially on moral grounds, the employee runs the risk of offending the requester, who may feel judged and get defensive. And if the requester is a supervisor, employees who don’t comply may worry that they will be cut off from important resources under the manager’s control, like promotions, bonuses, or desirable assignments.
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1. “2016 Global Business Ethics Survey: Measuring Risk and Promoting Workplace Integrity,” Arlington, Virginia: Ethics & Compliance Initiative, 2016, www.ethics.org.
2. N. Mazar, O. Amir, and D. Ariely, “The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance,” Journal of Marketing Research 45, no. 6 (December 2008): 633-644.
3. R.M. Steers, R.T. Mowday, and D.L. Shapiro, “The Future of Work Motivation Theory,” Academy of Management Review 29, no. 3 (July 2004): 379-387; and B.L. Rich, J.A. Lepine, and E.R. Crawford, “Job Engagement: Antecedents and Effects on Job Performance,” Academy of Management Journal 53, no. 3 (June 2010): 617-635.
4. J.R. Edwards, “Person-Environment Fit in Organizations: An Assessment of Theoretical Progress,” Academy of Management Annals 2, no. 1 (January 2008): 167-230; A.L. Kristof-Brown and R.P. Guay, “Person-Environment Fit,” in “APA Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Vol. 3: Maintaining, Expanding, and Contracting the Organization,” ed. S. Zedeck (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2011): 3-50; and J.D. Kammeyer-Mueller, L.S. Simon, and B.L. Rich, “The Psychic Cost of Doing Wrong: Ethical Conflict, Divestiture Socialization, and Emotional Exhaustion,” Journal of Management 38, no. 3 (May 2012): 784-808.
5. J.R. Edwards and D.M. Cable, “The Value of Value Congruence,” Journal of Applied Psychology 94, no. 3 (May 2009): 654-677.
6. A. Bandura, “Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves” (New York: Worth Publishers, 2016).
7. Because participants were randomly assigned to experimental conditions, people with varying degrees of skill with language were, on average, evenly distributed between the two groups.
8. V.K. Bohns, M.M. Roghanizad, and A.Z. Xu, “Underestimating Our Influence Over Others’ Unethical Behavior and Decisions,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40, no. 3 (March 2014): 348-362.