How does unethical behavior affect us?

by Ariel West 
(May 19, 2017 at 10:13 am)

We hear about business scandals all the time, from Wells Fargo creating fake bank accounts to increase profits to Hampton Creek’s inflated sales numbers. But what happens to us morally after we do something wrong?

Oklahoma State University associate professor of management Rebecca Greenbaum with co-authors and former OSU PhD students Julena Bonner, assistant professor at Utah State University, and Matt Quade, assistant professor at Baylor University, investigate the aftermath of unethical behavior on an individual in their latest research.

The article combines emotions theories with previous research to explain the effect unethical behavior has on an individual’s self-image. Greenbaum and her co-authors were interested to see if people fear for their own reputations and discovered that people tend to try to “make up” for their shame by displaying desirable qualities.

“There’s not a lot of research that looks at what people do after they engage in unethical conduct within the organization,” Greenbaum said. “The research that does exist suggests that when people engage in unethical behavior, they morally justify their actions, so they make it seem like their unethical actions aren’t as bad as what other people may view them as. Another reaction is to when they engage in unethical conduct, they sometimes engage in progressively worse behaviors over time.”

She said, “We wanted to see whether or not people have fear of an evil reputation as a result of their unethical conduct. We suggest unethical behavior can lead to shame reactions. Shame is an indicator of self-image threat… it provides this indication that ‘I’m under threat, other people might see me as having a reduced moral character, and they may not want to associate with me.’”

Rebecca Greenbaum is an associate professor of management at the Spears School of Business.

Greenbaum conducted a “shame study” with college undergraduates and had them engage in unethical conduct then take a survey asking about the level of shame they felt for being dishonest. She also collected field survey responses from working adults. As a result, Greenbaum’s approach was different from previous research as she discovered people don’t quite manage shame the way previous research suggests.

“The literature traditionally says that people manage their shame by trying to hide from those around them, so if I don’t want people to know about my unethical behavior, one thing I could do is withdraw from social relationships so I’m not ‘found out,’” Greenbaum said. “We take a different perspective. We suggest that, as a result of shame, people care about their long-term reputations, and therefore they are going to exemplify really desirable qualities so people will want to keep these unethical actors as relational partners.”

Greenbaum and her co-authors also found that self-image, tied to unethical behavior, can be even more threatened when the individual is associated with an employer that is intensely focused on a bottom-line mentality.

“Our research suggests that if I engage in unethical conduct and I’m associated with this high bottom-line mentality boss, I’m going to feel even worse about myself because people are going to see through my actions, ‘not only are you possibly unethical, but you are associated with this ‘shady’ boss,’ that doesn’t look good in terms of how other people would view you, therefore, you might experience more shame, which would then motivate you to try to exemplify other desirable behaviors to those around you,” Greenbaum said.

The article, “Employee Unethical Behavior to Shame as an Indicator of Self-Image Threat and Exemplification as a Form of Self-Image Protection: The Exacerbating Role of Supervisor Bottom-Line Mentality,” will be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Applied Psychology.