While it isn’t harmful to act in ethical ways, or consider ourselves ethical people, when we compare ourselves to others and determine that we are more ethical than them, our behavior can suddenly take a turn in an unethical direction.
“One way to think of this is that it is – and should be – concerning to us to believe that we are more ethical than our coworkers, especially if we do not perform as well as they do,” explains Matthew Quade, Ph.D., assistant professor of management in Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business and an expert on workplace ethics and ostracism (Quade, 2018).
Working with his team from Baylor University, Quade surveyed a total of 741 people, among them 310 employees (“focal employees”) and an equal number of their coworkers (“comparison coworkers”). Focal employees compared themselves with their coworkers based on two areas: perceived ethics and performance. Then they rated their levels of negative emotions (i.e., feelings of contempt, tension or disgust) toward those same comparison coworkers.
The results were telling. When employees believed that they were more ethical than similar coworkers (i.e., those that hold similar positions, have similar education background and similar tenure in the organization), they felt negative emotions (i.e., contempt, disgust, stress, repulsion) when thinking about those coworkers. Moreover, these negative emotions about the coworker were amplified when the employees also believe they do not perform as well as those same coworkers (Quade et al., 2018).
As part of the study, the comparison coworkers were also asked to rate how often they experienced social undermining (i.e., insults, spreading of rumors, belittling of ideas) and ostracism (i.e., ignored, avoided, shut out of conversations) from the focal employee. Here the results showed that the negative emotions that the “more ethical, lower performing” employees experience may result in them behaving in unethical ways directed at their coworkers. Specifically, they become more likely to socially undermine and ostracize those “less ethical, higher performing” coworkers. Further, the results held when controlling for gender and any positive emotion the employees may experience as a result of believing they are more ethical (Quade et al., 2018).
While such workplace scenarios can pose conundrums for managers – i.e. there is one employee who is ethical, yet doesn’t perform as well, and there is his unethical counterpart who outperforms him – they also appear to result in a sort of ethical tit-for-tat where another’s unethical behavior seems to help us justify our unethical retaliation.
This is also why Quade cautions rewarding high performing employees who dip their toe in unethical water. He explains, “If high performance is the result of questionable or unethical behavior, that combination should not be celebrated. Instead, organizations should be cautious when rewarding and promoting performance within organizations, ensuring that they also consider the way the job is done from an ethical standpoint” (Quade, 2018).
“The managerial implication is that we need to create environments where ethics and performance are both rewarded” (Quade, 2018).
The ideal situation, of course, is when high ethics and high performance are the norm – and rewarded – and the goal of enhancing the ethical behavior of all employees is to remove some of the disparity that tends to exist between employees when it comes to their moral behavior at work.
However, the conflict between ethical and unethical is only exacerbated when an unethical employee is also a top producer – and rewarded by the company.
Investigating why employees’ unethical behaviors may be tolerated versus rejected, Quade and his team conducted a total of three studies and surveyed 1,040 people – including more than 300 pairs of supervisors and their employees.
Looking to better explore whether people’s competence is more important than morality within the context of organizations, the researchers asked questions like: “When and why are people ostracized – or excluded from the group – while at work?”
What Quade and his team found should have us all reconsidering our morals at work. Specifically, high job performance may provide a motivated reason to ignore moral violations and unethical people are more likely to be ostracized if they do not perform well. Further, these results exist regardless of gender, or even the ethical culture of the organization (Quade et al., 2016).
Quade explains, “Unethical, high-performing employees provide contrasting worth to the organization. The employees’ unethical behaviors can be harmful, but their high job performance is also quite important to the organization’s success. In this vein, high job performance may offset unethical behavior enough to where the employee is less likely to be ostracized” (Quade, 2016).
On the other side of the coin, when employees are unethical and low-performing their unethical behavior results in workplace ostracism.
“They not only violate moral norms, but they fail to fulfill role expectations, which would make them particularly difficult to work with as evidenced by relationship conflict. People, then, are expected to demonstrate their disapproval towards those who create conflict by ostracizing them,” explains Quade (Quade, 2016).
“Unethical, yet high-performing employees, their work groups, and their organizations may exist on a false foundation that has the potential to crumble and cost employees their jobs and their organizations significant amounts of money” (Quade, 2016).
The results of ignoring ethical slips in the workplace are detrimental not only to the employees but to organizations as a whole. While unethical behavior can result in relationship conflict and workplace ostracism and adversely affect the organization’s bottom line – because of reduced performance and satisfaction and increased withdrawal – it can also help us justify our own bad behavior.