Ethics in the Workplace: Anxious Employees May Cause Trouble

The factors that affect ethics in the workplace are not as simple as they may seem. For example, imagine that you arrive at work a few minutes late because a large traffic accident caused commuting delays. You finally get settled at your desk and are ready to take on the day, when you get an email saying that your boss wants to see you immediately. The email is vague and does not state why your boss wants to see you. Perhaps she knows you arrived to work late. Maybe she has concerns about the report you turned in yesterday. Suddenly, you feel anxious, nervous, and ill at ease.

The workplace is replete with daily events, like the one described above, that provoke anxiety for employees. Although these events may be common, that does not mean they are benign; in fact, the consequences of workplace anxiety may be quite severe for organizations and individuals. A series of studies (Kouchaki & Desai, 2015) suggests that when employees experience anxiety at work they may also feel threatened, and as a result, are more likely to engage in unethical behavior.


Across multiple studies, individuals who were made to feel anxious were more likely to engage in unethical behavior than individuals in a neutral state. These findings were consistent for participants in both lab and online samples. A lab study involving undergraduate students showed that students who were made to feel anxious were more likely to engage in unethical behavior than students in the neutral condition. In the online study, participants were asked to read a workplace scenario in which their boss asked them to include false information in a company report. Participants who were made to fell anxious were more likely to endorse lying in the company report than participants in the neutral state condition.


As previously described, the research findings support the idea that anxious individuals are more likely to commit unethical acts than non-anxious individuals. But why does this occur? Anxiety can engender feelings of threat such that individuals feel their status, resources, or power are being threatened. The existence of both anxiety and threat can create discomfort for employees, thus motivating them to cope with and remove the threat. As a result, individuals who are in an anxious state become more self-interested and protective of their resources, which may make them less mindful of ethical principles.


The final study aimed to test the prior conclusions using a workplace sample. The researchers collected survey responses from 74 employees and their respective supervisors – these two-person combinations are called “dyads.” Employees reported their general level of anxiety and threat at work, while the supervisors provided ratings of the employees’ ethical behavior at work. The results showed that employees who said they had higher levels of anxiety were rated as more unethical by their supervisors. This relationship was found to be true due to perceived threat, such that employees who were more anxious reported higher perceptions of threat, and in turn, were described as engaging in more unethical behaviors than employees with lower levels of anxiety and threat.


Anxiety is a common occurrence for employees who are faced with daily workplace challenges and stressors. Thus, it is important for organizations to understand that when employees are in an anxious state, they may be more likely to engage in selfish, unethical behavior. To alleviate the consequences related to anxiety, organizations can engage in proactive measures that aim to lessen employee anxiety. The authors suggest that organizations may need to evaluate and restructure their culture in order to eliminate the factors that contribute to anxiety. For example, innovative companies like Google utilize play stations and fun furniture to make the workplace more fun for employees. In addition, physical exercise has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. Therefore, organizations that promote employees’ physical wellness may help employees cope with anxiety via healthy, ethical strategies.

Finally, organizations should ensure that they have set realistic expectations for employees. Employees are humans and cannot ‘do it all.’ Creating boundaries that allow employees to accomplish work tasks within realistic work hours and deadlines will help employees maintain a healthy lifestyle (e.g., getting quality sleep), leading to reduced anxiety and fewer negative organizational outcomes.