Unethical Behavior Tolerated if Profitability at Risk

Unethical behavior and performance is often accepted in the workplace when an employee’s productivity is critical to organizational success.

The behavior, however, may lead co-workers to distance themselves from the person, and the behavior may or may not eventually result in termination. Ultimately, unscrupulous behavior, and the effect it may have on co-workers is damaging to the organization.

Baylor University researchers examined the interactions in a paper, “”I Don’t Want to be Near You, Unless…”: The Interactive Effect of Unethical Behavior and Performance onto Workplace Ostracism,” published in the journal Personnel Psychology.

“In this study, we’re asking the questions: When and why are people ostracized — or excluded from the group — while at work?” said the study’s lead author, Matthew J. Quade, Ph.D., assistant professor of management in Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business.

“Our research contributes to an ongoing conversation regarding whether people’s competence is more important than morality within the context of organizations.”

Researchers conducted a total of three studies and surveyed 1,040 people — including more than 300 pairs of supervisors and their employees.

Study results show:

  • High job performance may provide a motivated reason to ignore moral violations;
  • Unethical people are more likely to be ostracized if they do not perform well;
  • These results exist regardless of gender;
  • These results exist regardless of the ethical culture of the organization

“Unethical, high-performing employees provide contrasting worth to the organization,” explain the researchers.

“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.”

On the flip side, unethical, low-performing individuals do not fare as well.

“[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,” researchers said. “People, then, are expected to demonstrate their disapproval towards those who create conflict by ostracizing them.”

Quade said the research ultimately shows that unethical behavior, while overlooked in some cases, and ostracism are detrimental to the organization and all involved.

“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,” researchers said.

The study offered two ways that organizations can curtail improper behavior and curb workplace ostracism:

  1. Make it clear that employees’ unethical behaviors, regardless of performance, will not be tolerated.
  2. Provide a more functional way for employees to respond to unethical employees.

“Leaders need to be particularly diligent in swiftly disciplining unethical behavior,” researchers said. “Organizations might consider hiring and training ethical leaders who will demonstrate and espouse the importance of behaving ethically.”

“Relationship conflict and workplace ostracism can adversely affect the organization’s bottom line because of reduced performance and satisfaction and increased withdrawal,” researchers said.

“Employees could be encouraged, and even rewarded, for discussing suspect behaviors with their leaders.”

Source: Baylor University