No company would purposely hire an unethical or deceptive manager, right? It’s a question many have pondered as they observed their direct supervisor abusing his or her power, displaying narcissistic tendencies, or flat-out acting in an unethical manner.
Now, a new joint study led by The University of Maryland reports some bad bosses are being placed in positions of power for a specific reason. Study authors say that when a company is in need of “aggressive earnings reports” recruiters and hiring managers are more likely to suggest job candidates with “dark personality traits” who would be willing to inflate or manipulate earnings and income data.
Conversely, managerial candidates who displayed a strong sense of ethics and willingness to consult with others were usually passed over in such situations.
“Dark personality traits are often framed as an accidental byproduct of selecting managers who fit the stereotype of a strong leader,” says study co-author Nick Seybert, an accounting professor at UMD. “However, our research found that this is often no accident.”
Researchers investigated typical hiring practices for executive management accounting candidates across numerous firms to come to these scandalous conclusions. Across three experiments, study authors observed how job candidates were chosen for further consideration. For example, one experiment asked subjects to rank potential candidates across a variety of dimensions; ability to lead, experience, etc.
Job candidates with “dark personalities” only ranked well in this exercise for the dimension named “manipulation of ethical boundaries.” This is an especially telling finding because it means that bad bosses aren’t being hired despite their negative traits, but because of them. Literally, the only advantage they have in comparison to more ethical candidates is their willingness to bend the rules.
“A lot of people assume that these managers must have great self-presentation, promotion, people skills, or confidence” Seybert adds. “But our research shows otherwise.”
Study authors also made it a point to seek out and enlist actual recruiters, hiring managers, and senior executives to take part in this research. The background of those involved in this project lends extra validity to its findings.
“Very, very few prior studies involved people who have experience recruiting for prior jobs,” Seybert explains. “Our research involved a lot of time-consuming and creative searching to find the right participants.”
All in all, this study strongly indicates that the vast majority of awful or just unethical bosses you’ve experienced in your career were put in that position for a very specific reason. This phenomenon is especially troubling once one realizes that this means far more qualified (and ethical) candidates are being passed over.
On that note, Seybert adds that this work is just as important for job-seekers as it is for companies and hiring managers. Just because you didn’t land a particular job doesn’t necessarily mean you bombed the interview or were unqualified.
“The best takeaway for employees is to avoid companies that might have use for managers with dark personalities, and not to expect support from higher-ups when this is the case. The company might have picked a bad boss on purpose,” he concludes.
The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Business Ethics.