Which Employees will Morally Disengage and Behave Unethically?

Topic(s): Counter-Productive Work Behavior, ethics, personality, workplace deviance
Publication: Personnel Psychology (2012)
Article: Why employees do bad things: Moral disengagement and unethical organizational behavior
Authors: C. Moore, J.R. Detert, L.K. Treviño, V.L. Baker, D.M. Mayer
Reviewed by: Alexandra Rechlin

Organizations obviously want their employees to act ethically. While there are existing measures that are used to predict who will act unethically, the authors of this paper (Moore, Detert, Treviño, Baker, & Mayer, 2012) proposed a new psychological concept that they called an individual’s propensity to morally disengage. This is an individual difference in how people think about ethical decisions and behavior that allows them to act unethically without feeling bad about it.


The researchers developed a way to measure an individual’s propensity to morally disengage. In a series of studies, they validated the measure for working adults by showing that the propensity to morally disengage was positively related to unethical behavior after accounting for a number of other related traits, orientations, and emotions. Predicted outcomes included self-reported, supervisor-reported, and coworker-reported unethical behavior, decisions to commit fraud, and self-serving decisions in the workplace.


How is this relevant to practitioners? Not only does this new measure of the propensity to morally disengage predict unethical behavior, it is also only eight questions long. While it has yet to be validated for employee selection, this measure certainly shows promise for its ability to predict unethical behavior. The authors also found that this measure had a low correlation with social desirability, so it seems to be fairly resistant to test-takers faking their responses to receive good scores. Organizations using lengthy integrity tests as part of their selection process may want to consider this new shorter test instead.


Moore, C., Detert, J. R., Treviño, L. K., Baker, V. L., & Mayer, D. M. (2012). Why employees do bad things: Moral disengagement and unethical organizational behavior. Personnel Psychology, 65, 1-48.

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