If higher-ups in a company are getting away with unethical behavior, chances are other employees are too, according to a new paper published in the November 2016 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
Titled, "Blame the shepherd not the sheep: Imitating high-ranking transgressors mitigates punishment for unethical behavior," the paper is a compilation of findings from five studies conducted by UC Irvine Paul Merage School of Business Professor Christopher Bauman and his co-authors Leigh P. Tost and Madeline Ong.
"Employee reports are the most effective means of identifying unethical behavior within organizations. Our purpose was to identify reasons why people sometimes report and sometimes look the other way when they see people violate company rules," said Bauman. "Research has shown that people are more likely to break the rules when they see others do it first, but we were interested in whether other people's bad behavior affects how people respond to imitators."
Bauman and his team found that observers were less apt to blame and punish people who imitated a higher-ranking member of their organization who did something unethical compared to when people imitated a peer in the organization or broke rules that no one else had recently broken. Also, blame and punishment were only reduced for imitators when the two transgressors were from the same company and when they committed the exact same offense. In other words, the reductions of blame and punishment for imitators were limited to specific conditions and did not reflect increased tolerance of unethical behavior in general.
Bauman's research focused on behavior such as expense report manipulation and inventory theft, which are by far the most common type of fraud within organizations. Although each of these instances of fraud is small, they add up to a substantial cost to the company.
Bauman also notes, "Another interesting thing about the effect of imitation on punishment that we observed was that it completely disappeared when people were told that the first person to break the rules was punished. It wasn't necessary to provide details about how severely the first person was punished, it was sufficient to simply signal that the misdeed did not go unchecked. That said, we need more research to understand the best way companies can manage situations like these while balancing the needs and concerns of all those involved."
Materials provided by University of California, Irvine, The Paul Merage School of Business. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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