Photo: iStockPhoto
Photo: iStockPhoto

Unethical behaviour of senior staff tells on group’s image

Unethical behaviour of a higher-ranking group member is perceived as representative of the organization, resulting in more negative impressions of the group, says a study

It’s normal for employers to be careful about whom they hire, but maybe it’s time for employees to be extra careful in choosing where to work too, as research suggests a corporate scandal à la Enron can haunt you long after.

Malpractices or unethical behaviour—even when committed by a few highly-ranked employees—are found to have negative consequences on the image of lower-ranked employees in the organization.

In Moral Suspicion Trickles Down, a paper published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, Stanford University researchers Benoît Monin, professor of organizational behaviour and psychology, and graduate research student Takuya Sawaoka, highlight how the social rank of someone who commits moral transgressions affects associated individuals, and they term this the moral spillover effect.

The researchers conducted four questionnaire-based studies with 672 participants hired using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace where people can be hired for tasks.

The study found that the unethical behaviour of a higher-ranking group member was perceived as representative of the organization, resulting in more negative impressions of the group.

In such a group, when participants were told of another group member’s potentially unethical behaviour, the study found that they tended to take a more negative view of them. The researchers also found that participants took a negative view of a group member whose peers were involved in unethical behaviour, even when there was no suggestion of his personal involvement, like in the previous case.

The study also examined the career prospects for someone who had been a part of an organization that was involved in malpractices.

It was found that compared with the fraudulent behaviour of a lower-ranking employee, a higher-ranking employee’s fraudulent behaviour led participants to oppose hiring another employee of the organization.

The perceived prototypicality of higher-ranking group members, or the perception that they exert direct influence over lower-ranking members is what leads to a greater spillover, according to Sawaoka and Monin.

Whether a higher-ranking member’s incompetency may reflect badly on a lower-ranking member’s perceived capability, whether this moral spillover holds even when a violation is committed by an organization in which one is a member or consumer, are some questions that would need more research.

Since the research suggests that moral spillover occurs as the unethical behaviour of one member is supposed to be typical of the organization, Sawaoka and Monin conclude that people could reduce the effect by suggesting that they are not representative of the entire group and distance themselves from it.

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