It’s never been more important for companies to conduct themselves ethically and morally across all areas of business. Whether that means more sustainable business practices or a more detailed employee conduct handbook, modern consumers have far less patience than earlier generations when it comes to brands and companies who employ shady business practices or look the other way.
Many companies have read the writing on the wall over recent years and introduced sweeping changes intended to instill a more ethical culture among all employees and create a more palatable public image as a moral business.
That’s all great and certainly a step in the right direction, but a new study from Baylor University finds much of those efforts will ultimately fail if management doesn’t hold itself to the same standard.
Researchers say that even if a company does its best to institute ethical internal changes if upper management doesn’t get with the program it will eventually lead to increased unethical behavior and “a lack of moral courage” among lower-level employees.
If management essentially tells workers with their actions that the company’s ethical policies amount to “rules for thee but not for me,” no employee is going to feel all that compelled to do the right thing. “If the guy with a better job and higher salary than me doesn’t care, why should I?”
“I believe the key surprise finding is that in an ethical environment – or one that is thought to be ethical – amoral management is even more problematic for employees,” says lead study researcher Matthew J. Quade, Ph.D., associate professor of management at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business, in a release. “The amoral manager’s lack of an ethical message is particularly ambiguous in an environment that is otherwise offering clear messages about ethical expectations for organizational members.”
A total of 1,034 full and part-time workers were surveyed for this research. Those surveys asked participating employees to rate the level of amoral management at their company. Researchers write that those responses revealed that “amoral management had a significant effect when the ethical environment was high but had a weaker effect on moral courage when the ethical environment was low.”
That finding in particular is worth exploring a bit further. It seems amoral managers actually do more damage when operating within otherwise ethical workplaces. Perhaps it’s the blatant hypocrisy or the unsettling notion that management is held to a different standard than everyone else that eventually leads to increased unethical behavior among employees working under an amoral boss.
“Despite being problematic, amoral management is believed to be quite common in organizations,” Quade explains. “The ill effects of amoral managers are made even worse when they operate in organizations that are thought to be ethical from the perspective of employees.”
The research team says that a hallmark of amoral management is failing to properly address or correct unethical internal situations. For example, if an office manager fails time and time again to dole out proper punishment to a certain employee who continually makes inappropriate remarks, it sends a message to everybody else that the same rules and ethics don’t apply to everyone.
“Employees who work for amoral managers have less moral courage, which results in their engaging in higher levels of unethical behavior,” Quade notes.
Moral courage, meanwhile, refers to how far one is willing to go to address and correct unethical behavior. Imagine you discover someone in accounting has been skimming some money off the books. Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable going to your boss about the issue if you knew he or she conducted themselves in a moral manner?
When management is amoral, employees don’t feel comfortable putting themselves out there to report unethical behavior.
“It is imperative for managers to be vocal about their expectations when it comes to ethics,” Quade suggests.” When they fail to engage in situations that have ethical implications, employees suffer.”
When most people think about becoming a manager, CEO, or another type of business leader, most immediately jump to thoughts of high salaries, big offices, and other appealing perks. All of that does usually come along with entering upper management, but responsibility is another major aspect of such promotions. Management sets the tone for the entire company, and if leadership can’t act morally their employees likely won’t either.
The full study can be found here, published in Human Relations.