Can Creative Employees Avoid Unethical Behavior?

Topic(s): creativity, ethics, selection
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2018)
Article: Are Creative Individuals Bad Apples? A Dual Pathway Model of Unethical Behavior
Authors: S. Keem, C.E. Shalley, E. Kim, I. Jeong
Reviewed by: William Hasek

Successful organizations typically value creativity. Creative employees arrive at innovative problem-solving strategies and help organizations chart a path into the future. However, creativity may also come with a cost.

Research has arrived at conflicting results when it comes to the relationship between creativity and ethical behavior. Some studies suggest that creative individuals are more likely to engage in unethical behavior, as they use their openness and flexible thinking to make excuses for themselves. Conversely, other studies suggest that creative individuals are less likely to engage in unethical behavior, as they use their creativity to develop multiple perspectives on ethical challenges.

To integrate these conflicting findings, new research (Keem, Shalley, Kim, & Jeong, 2018) proposed and tested a model that describes the relationship between creativity and unethical behavior.


According to the model developed by the researchers, an individual can engage in two types of thinking when faced with the opportunity to engage in unethical behavior. The first type of thinking is called moral disengagement. Moral disengagement involves reframing actions in such a way that they appear justifiable. It can take different forms, including disregarding the consequences of one’s actions, dehumanizing others, and displacing responsibility.

The second type of thinking is called moral imagination. Moral imagination involves using creativity to develop multiple solutions to an ethical dilemma. Once these multiple solutions have been developed, an individual can select the solution that results in the fewest negative consequences.

The researchers hypothesized that a person’s moral identity determines which type of thinking they utilize. If morality is a minor part of a person’s identity, then their creativity will increase their chances of using moral disengagement. By contrast, if morality is a major part of a person’s identity, then their creativity will increase their chances of using moral imagination.


The researchers tested their hypothesis with two studies. The first study was conducted with employees of a Korean food service company. These employees completed a sequence of surveys over the course of three weeks. The second study was conducted with undergraduate students from the United States. These students completed surveys and responded to a business ethics case study.

Both studies partially supported the hypothesis: creative individuals who are high in moral identity are likely to utilize moral imagination and refrain from unethical behavior. However, the studies did not clarify when creativity results in more unethical behavior.


This research suggests that organizations should evaluate candidates not only on their creativity but also on their moral identity. Candidates who are highly creative and who see themselves as moral are likely to leverage their creative abilities for the sake of ethical decision-making. Furthermore, organizations should strive to create a culture in which moral identity is valued, as this makes it more likely that individuals will use their creative abilities for positive ends.


Keem, S., Shalley, C. E., Kim, E., & Jeong, I. (2018). Are creative individuals bad apples? A dual pathway model of unethical behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(4), 416-431.