Need Ethics? Here, Take Mine (IO Psychology)

Topic(s): ethics

Topic: Ethics
Publication: Journal of Management (2012)
Article: The psychic cost of doing wrong: Ethical conflict, divestiture socialization, and emotional exhaustion
Authors: Kammeyer-Mueller, J. D., Simon, L. S., & Rich, B. L.
Reviewed By: Katie Bachman

It’s sweet, albeit naïve, to think that the ethical training we learned in pursuit of a degree or on the job during seemingly endless training sessions will do the trick. We will always be upstanding corporate citizens, ready to fight evil. But that’s not really what happens. It’s all well and good to make your employees take ethics training, but what about when their supervisor or even the organizational culture pushes them to break their ethical rules? Sure, we have a moral dilemma, but it goes deeper than that. Ethical lapses have an effect on the employees who make or see them.

In a study of new lawyers (you can insert your own lawyer joke here), researchers examined the impact of ethical conflict on emotional exhaustion and feelings of fulfillment. In terms of establishing ethical conflict, they looked at a particular kind of organizational socialization—divestment. This is the type of socialization that encourages new employees to drop their own ideals and intuitions and adapt to what the organization believes. It’s the drop-that-hold-this approach to socializing. So, employees who come into an organization with wide eyes and high standards of ethics are now bombarded with the real world, or at least the real world as the organization sees it. If the employee’s belief system doesn’t jive with the organization’s, the new employee has to change to fit. If the change in beliefs has to do with professional ethics, that’s were we see this ethical conflict. Take it another step further and we find that the ethical conflict can be particularly draining for new employees. They have to deal with situations that they know are unethical and that takes a toll. They’re also less fulfilled as employees, because, hey, they’re in the business of doing wrong. Would you be happy about that?

Unless your organization is on a quest to bring down James Bond or uses words like “nefarious” in its mission statement, you’re probably interested in decreasing instances of unethical behavior. After all, ethical lapses on the part of organization lead to less fulfilled, more exhausted employees. The key here is to change the culture before it changes the people. Those individuals suffering that ethical conflict—those are the good ones. Keep them in their angelic condition by instituting policies that encourage ethics (training, whistle-blower protection, etc.). Ethical lapses happen, but not in your company.


Kammeyer-Mueller, J. D., Simon, L. S., & Rich, B. L. (2012). The Psychic cost of doing wrong: Ethical conflict, divestiture socialization, and emotional exhaustion. Journal of Management, 38, 784-808.

human resource management, organizational industrial psychology, organizational management



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