Ethical Leadership Flows to Lower Level Employees

Topic(s): ethics, leadership
Publication: Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes

Article: How low does ethical leadership flow? Test of a trickle-down model.
Authors: D.M. Mayer, M. Kuenzi, R. Greenbaum, M. Bardes, R. Salvador

Reviewed by: Benjamin Granger

Past research has shown that organizational leaders play a substantial role in influencing the behaviors of their employees. In fact, there is some evidence that leader behavior plays an important role in predicting how likely employees engage in counterproductive or unethical behavior.

In an effort to better understand how and why ethical executive behavior influences employee behavior, the authors (Mayer, Kuenzi, Greenbaum, Bardes, & Salvador, 2009) tested a trickle-down process, where leader behavior influences the behavior of those below them.


Specifically, the authors found that ethical behavior by executives did indeed influence deviant and counterproductive behavior by employees, albeit indirectly through the behavior of middle managers and supervisors. In other words, it appears that top managers’ ethical behavior directly influences the behavior of middle level supervisors which then influences the behavior of employees below them.

But why does managerial ethical behavior affect employee behavior? The authors suggest that managers and supervisors serve as models that employees follow and emulate.


Since the behavior of top executives has important implications for both positive and negative employee behavior, initiatives intended to improve ethics in organizations should start at the very top. The authors suggest that it may be useful to select managers based on integrity, concern for others, and moral standards. In addition, another option is implementing ethics training programs for middle and top managers. 


Mayer, D.M., Kuenzi, M., Greenbaum, R., Bardes, M., Salvador, R. (2009). How low does ethical leadership flow? Test of a trickle-down model. Organizational Behavior and Human Decisions Processes, 108, 1-13.