Unethical employees can plague a workplace, costing companies money as well as their reputations. But organizations don’t always have fool-proof ways to combat unethical behavior. New research by Kouchaki and Wareham (2015) has identified one type of workplace activity that may lead employees to increase unethical behavior. Using state-of-the-art equipment, they were able to measure physiological changes in certain employees that may have caused them to act unethically. So what is the culprit? What makes certain employees act unethically?
THE ROLE OF SOCIAL EXCLUSION ON UNETHICAL EMPLOYEES
First, the authors point out that unethical behavior occurs when someone has defied the standards of society in general, as oppose to workplace deviance, which is when employees defy standards specific to a particular place of work. They say that people can usually stop themselves from behaving unethically, because unethical behavior typically makes a person feel anxiety or guilt. These feelings may signal the perpetrator that his or her actions are morally unjust, and the behavior might stop. The real problem occurs when the perpetrator can attribute the feelings of anxiety to some other outside cause. In this situation, the person will not readily consider the moral dilemma at hand, and may continue acting unethically.
In the current study, the authors conducted two studies and found that employees who were socially-ostracized or excluded exhibited a heightened sense of arousal (such as increased anxiety). When these employees were about to act unethically, they could easily attribute the anxiety to their troubling social situation, and not the fact that they were about to do something unethical. This seemed to lead these employees to increase their unethical behavior.
WHAT CAN ORGANIZATIONS DO ABOUT IT?
This research is important for several reasons. First, it provides organizations with a better understanding of when unethical behavior can occur. By showing that excluded employees increased their unethical behavior, the study provides organizations with a way to combat the unethical behavior. Leaders can make an effort to help all employees feel like they are part of the team, through their words and their actions. Besides for increasing interpersonal fairness toward potentially excluded employees, this study shows that it will also help the organization as a whole, by likely decreasing unethical behavior.
The authors also note that the specific finding of this study, namely that excluding employees may lead them to increase unethical behavior, can turn into a vicious cycle. When these employees are known to commit unethical behavior, their coworkers may exclude or ostracize them even more. This is a warning call to organizations to try to stop this cycle by mitigating exclusionary behavior in the workplace.
Another contribution of this study, note the authors, is that it highlights the role of emotional or physiological influences on decision making. We like to think of decision making as a completely rational process. But research shows that this is not always the case. In this study, physiological changes in a person’s body were at least partially to blame for unethical behavior. Interestingly, these physiological changes had nothing to do with the unethical behavior itself, and instead emanated from a completely non-related outside source. Organizational leaders need to be aware of this dynamic when trying to explain or influence workplace behavior.