Will Employees Speak Up in the Face of Unethical Leadership?

Topic(s): ethics, leadership
Publication: Journal of Business Ethics
Article: Employee ethical silence under exploitative leadership: The roles of work meaningfulness and moral potency
Authors: Z. Wang, S. Ren, D. Chadee, Y. Chen
Reviewed by: Grace Cox

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This adage, attributed to Edmund Burke, can be applicable to almost every setting of daily life, even the workplace. However, what factors determine whether an employee will speak up and report unethical behavior? New research (Wang et al., 2024) investigates this question.


Across two studies involving hundreds of employees, the researchers found that the more exploitative leadership employees faced, the more likely they were to stay silent about unethical behavior they were experiencing or witnessing. However, employees were more likely to overcome the effects of the exploitative leader and speak up to report the bad behavior under two scenarios – (1) when employees found their work to be meaningful and (2) when employees had stronger “moral potency,” which refers to having the courage to act and the belief that they can make a difference. On the other hand, when the expectation of rewards is factored in, it can make it more difficult for employees to speak up.


In light of this research, organizations should consider doing the following:

  • Work to prevent exploitative leadership. This may involve designing a selection system to identify leaders who will not exploit employees. It may also involve implementing a zero-tolerance policy for exploitative leader behavior – with compensation or rewards linked directly to it. Finally, when organizations become aware of exploitation, they need to act quickly to protect employees and correct the poor behavior.
  • Help employees find meaning in their work. In the study, employees who found meaning in their work were more likely to report unethical leaders. One way that organizations can help employees find meaning in their work is by encouraging them to engage in job crafting, which is aligning jobs with personal needs or preferences.
  • Strive to support employees’ moral potency by encouraging them to identify and solve ethical dilemmas. Further, organizations should reward and acknowledge employees who do speak up.
  • Create a culture of fairness by making the reward and assessment process clear and objective. This will encourage employees to speak up and report wrongdoing without fear that their rewards, compensation, or performance evaluations will suffer.


Wang, Z., Ren, S., Chadee, D., & Chen, Y. (2024). Employee ethical silence under exploitative leadership: The roles of work meaningfulness and moral potency. Journal of Business Ethics, 190, 59-76.

Image credit: Unsplash+ in collaboration with Getty Images