What Happens When Employees Stand up to Wrongdoing?

Moral objection is when we see someone doing something wrong or unethical and we stand up to that person in protest. Because unethical behavior such as bullying, discrimination, or financial crimes occurs so regularly in the workplace, employees are often in a position to engage in moral objection. Sometimes employees may be reluctant to speak up for fear of counter-bullying or other formal or informal sanctions that may be used against them in retaliation. Yet, at other times, employees may take principled action and will be seen as heroes for standing up to wrongdoing. What motivates these two dissimilar responses to people who morally object?


New research (Wellman, Mayer, Ong, & DeRue, 2016) finds that our response to people who take a moral stand is partially based on the roles or characteristic behaviors that we expect them to take. In other words, if we expect a person to speak up and they do, we will probably have a favorable opinion of that person. On the other hand, if we expect a person to remain silent and that person speaks up, we will likely have an unfavorable view of that person.

The authors conducted three different experiments that ranged from comprehensive simulations to asking people to recall instances of actual unethical workplace behavior. They found that for employees who had legitimate power, or power that comes from formal authority, there was an association between moral objection and being perceived as warm or friendly. We expect powerful people to stand up to wrongdoing, and we seem to have a favorable impression of them when they do. On the other hand, for those low in legitimate power, moral objection was associated with perceptions of not being warm and friendly. Basically, people without authority are not expected to speak up. When they do, people perceive them to be a bit rough.

The authors also found that for those who are low in legitimate power, moral objection led them to experience more social sanctioning in retaliation. This was not the case for those with a high amount of legitimate power.


This study shows that we have different responses for people who take moral stands. Based on our expectations for appropriate behavior, we seem to highly appraise powerful people for speaking up, but negatively appraise non-powerful people for speaking up. How can organizations use this information to mitigate unethical behavior?

The authors recommend that organizations start to recognize that stopping unethical behavior starts with those at the top. Based on this study, people in positions of power risk less when standing up to unethical behavior. Similarly, when people do try to stop unethical behavior, they would be wise, say the authors, to emphasize any legitimate power that they possess. If a moral objection is seen as emanating from a position of power, people will be less likely to retaliate or form a negative opinion of the objector.

Finally, the authors recommend that organizations publicly encourage all people at all levels to stand up to moral indiscretion. If a campaign is done correctly, people will no longer only expect powerful people to morally object, but they will instead come to expect all people to morally object. Based on the findings of this study, these expectations are important in determining how people will respond. When people come to expect moral objection from all people, they will likely reduce negative or harmful responses toward people who have the courage to speak out.


Wellman, N., Mayer, D. M., Ong, M., & Derue, D. S. (2016). When are do-gooders treated badly? Legitimate power, role expectations, and reactions to moral objection in organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(6), 793-814.