How to Ensure Employees Act Ethically

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

It may be naïve to think that ethics training is adequate. What happens when supervisors or even organizational culture pushes employees 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, 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. 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 fit 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.


Most organizations are 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. Help them avoid temptation by instituting policies that encourage ethics (training, whistle-blower protection, etc.). Ethical lapses will 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.