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Introductory comments from CRB Executive Director, Robert Strand:

The Academy of Management (AOM) is the preeminent academic association for management and organization scholars. It follows that the Social Issues in Management division of AOM is the leading forum for scholars committed to advancing understanding of social issues, institutions, interactions, and impacts of management in an effort to promote social change and sustainable development.

I have the honor to chair the award committee to select the best student paper for the Social Issues in Management division.   We recently awarded the prize at the annual AOM conference to the authors of the article “Eaten Up With Guilt: Responding to Our Own Unethical Behavior in the Workplace.” I asked the authors to distill the main points of their award-winning article on our Center for Responsible Business blog, and they kindly agreed to do so.

–Robert

Eaten Up With Guilt: Responding to Our Own Unethical Behavior in the Workplace

By Julena M. Bonner, Rebecca L. Greenbaum, and Matthew J. Quade, Winners of the Academy of Management Best Student Paper in Social Issues in Management 2015

Most people understand the negative impact unethical behavior in the workplace has on other people and society. The media provides a plethora of information regarding the bad behavior of business people. From Kenneth Lay to Bernie Madoff, we have been provided with very vivid examples of the harm unethical business people can have on individuals and society in general. However, are we aware of the personal harm we each may encounter when we engage in misconduct at work?

We are all susceptible

While media coverage provides potent examples of highly unethical people, the fact of the matter is that many people, even people we would consider ‘honest’ and ‘ethical’, can be drawn into engaging in unethical behavior. In fact, research from the Ethics Resource Center, a non-profit organization that conducts ethics based research in US companies, found that 41% of employees reported witnessing others at work engaging in unethical conduct. This helps illustrate that ethical violations are widespread and evident at all levels of organizations.

Think of a time when you may have taken someone else’s food from the community refrigerator, fudged your expense report to receive more reimbursement than you should, or taken a post-it notepad home from work. The fact of the matter is that we are all susceptible to engaging in misconduct at work. These may not be considered ‘large’ ethical infractions, but they constitute misconduct, and engagement in these behaviors influences the way people feel about themselves. So how do we respond to our own misconduct?

Individual response to unethical behavior

In general, people typically strive to maintain favorable moral self-concepts, meaning we like to think of ourselves as good, moral people (honest, fair, kind, etc.). Engagement in unethical behavior often violates personal- and community-based moral standards, which can harm people’s images of themselves as moral people.

After engaging in a behavior, such as unethical behaviors, a natural response people have is to assess whether that behavior will be self-beneficial or self-harmful. For example, fudging your expense report is likely to be assessed as self-harmful because it may jeopardize your moral self-image (you may no longer be able to think of yourself as honest and fair) and, if discovered, it may also jeopardize your livelihood (you may lose your job or damage your reputation). The assessment of a behavior as harmful leads people to experience negative emotions, such as guilt.

Guilt as a consequence of unethical behavior

Guilt is a moral emotion that is induced by actions that violate moral standards and/or harm others. Furthermore, guilt is described as a motivating emotion, meaning it motivates people to take action either to ‘make-up’ for the unethical behavior, or ‘save face’. For example, research finds that people can manage their guilt by donating to charities, engage in more helping behavior towards others, or even physically cleanse themselves in an attempt to make amends or save face in the eyes of others. Thus, we find that people respond to their own moral violations by feeling guilty (Izard, 1991; Tangney et al., 2007), which then encourages them to engage in behaviors that correct the wrongdoing or allow them to save face.

To illustrate this point, we invited students at a large university in the Midwest to participate in an activity that would allow them to cheat. Students were instructed to pay themselves based on how many word puzzles they reported to have solved. We found that the more students cheated, or paid themselves for more puzzles than they had actually solved, the guiltier they felt. In a follow up study, we found that working adults who thought about a time when they had done something unethical at work experience significantly more guilt than those who thought about nothing out of the ordinary.

How guilt influences other behaviors

A natural reaction for people is to hide their “dirty linen” (e.g., unethical behavior) to ensure that they are seen as people of integrity—to present their best sides so that others will think well of them. More specifically, people handle their unethical behavior and resultant guilt by attempting to conceal the flawed behavior. In a series of studies involving working adults, we found that employees who engaged in unethical behavior experienced guilt and subsequently engaged in exemplification behaviors to make themselves appear to be dedicated and hard-working employees. They came into work early or stayed late to give off the image of hard-working, dedicated employees. These behaviors are thought to help bolster the positive image others have of them. Furthermore, we also found that employees who have supervisors who encourage and support ethical behaviors and practices, are even more likely to engage in behaviors that will make them appear dedicated and hard-working in the aftermath of unethical behavior and subsequent guilt.

What this means for managers

Hindsight is 20/20; we believe this applies to ethical behavior as well. Thus, to better inform practices for preventing unethical behavior in the first place, it is useful to evaluate what occurs after employees engage in unethical behavior. By understanding employees’ reactions to their own unethical behavior, managers can use this information to better promote and practice ethical constraint. In particular, managers may benefit from understanding the motivating force of guilt. Guilt can be a beneficial emotion as it alerts employees to their ethical failings and motivates them to take corrective action, through reparative (making up) or self-protective (face-saving) behaviors. While compensation may be the more beneficial of the two responses, as it leads to reparative behaviors, face saving behaviors, such as exemplification, may also be positive in that the employee feels compelled to appear hardworking and dedicated, which may actually turn into the employee indeed working more diligently. Thus, guilt may not be a destructive emotion, but rather a constructive one, at least when it comes to preventing and correcting unethical behavior.