Feelings of ethical superiority can lead to workplace ostracism, social undermining.

Listen to this article

Feelings of ethical superiority can lead to workplace ostracism, social undermining.

Do you consider yourself more ethical than your coworker? Research flagged recently in TR shows that most of us do. However, take care. Your feelings of ethical superiority can cause a chain reaction that is detrimental to you, your coworker and your organization.   A new study published in the Journal of Business Ethics suggests that your feelings of ethical superiority can lead you to have negative emotions toward a “less ethical” coworker. Those negative emotions can be amplified if you also believe you do not perform as well as that coworker. And, furthermore, those negative emotions can lead to your mistreatment and/or ostracism (social exclusion) of that less ethical, higher-performing colleague.   

What the researchers say: “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,” said the lead author.   The research, he said, can help managers create better atmospheres and improve the bottom line.   “The managerial implication is that we need to create environments where ethics and performance are both rewarded,” he said.   A total of 741 people, among them 310 employees (“focal employees”) and an equal number of their coworkers (“comparison coworkers”), were surveyed for the study. 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.   Results show that employees who believe they are more ethical than similar coworkers (i.e., those that hold similar positions, have similar education background and similar tenure in the organization) feel negative emotions (i.e., contempt, disgust, stress, repulsion) when thinking about those coworkers. These negative emotions about the coworker are amplified when the employees also believe they do not perform as well as those same coworkers.   

In turn, the comparison coworkers rated 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.   Results also show that the negative emotions that the “more ethical, lower performing” employees experience may result in them behaving in unethical ways to their coworkers. Specifically, they become more likely to socially undermine and ostracize those “less ethical, higher performing” coworkers. All the study’s results are confirmed regardless of gender and any positive emotion the employees may experience as a result of believing they are more ethical.   Ultimately, such workplace scenarios pose a conundrum for managers, the researchers said. On one hand, there is the ethical worker who doesn’t perform as well. On the other hand, there’s the less ethical worker who hits all the goals. Who gets rewarded?   “If high performance is the result of questionable or unethical behavior, that combination should not be celebrated,” the researchers wrote. “Instead, organizations should be cautious when rewarding and promoting performance, ensuring that they also consider the way the job is done from an ethical standpoint.”   The ideal situation, the study reveals, is when high ethics and high performance are the norm - and employees are rewarded.   “Enhancing the ethical behavior of all employees should be an attempt to remove some of the disparity that tends to exist between employees when it comes to their moral behavior at work,” the researchers wrote.   

So, what? What we have seen in the Royal Commission into banks in Australia and the revelations concerning the nefarious dealings of the US banks—most recently Wells Fargo—show that unethical behavior is actually encouraged by management so long as it produces more revenue. I think, given the present economic environment this will only continue and increase no matter what penalties, individual and corporate, are applied.   In a situation where the market is not increasing, inequality is rampant, and most businesses can only become more profitable through increasing their market share at the expense of others and reducing their workforce (thus making sure that the market does not increase). The natural human instinct (a result of our DNA from our reaction to scarcity on the savanna) is to grab what we can.   I believe ethical businesses and ethical employees are both an endangered species.   

What now? The rebirth of ethics in business has to start from the top. By that I mean the very top with the President or the Prime Minister role modeling ethical behavior. They, as well as CEOs, must by their actions make ethical behavior something to be emulated. At the moment the very reverse is happening.


Join the discussion

More from this issue of TR

No items found.

Join our tribe

Subscribe to Dr. Bob Murray’s Today’s Research, a free weekly roundup of the latest research in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Explore leadership, strategy, culture, business and social trends, and executive health.

Thank you for subscribing.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Check your details and try again.