Workers more likely to challenge unethical behaviour if their boss is ethical too

Workers are much more likely to challenge unethical behaviour in their organisation if their manager is seen as an ethical leader, according to new research from Durham University Business School.

The research was conducted by Professor’s of Management, Olga Epitropaki and Les Graham at Durham University Business School, alongside colleagues from the University of Sheffield and the University of Northampton.

Whilst the majority of previous research into ethical leadership is on the impact it has on workers acting ethically themselves, Professor’s Epitropaki and Graham and their colleagues wanted to understand whether ethical leadership made workers more likely to call out unethical practices too. This could be taken the wrong way sometimes and it can even create problems involving a workers compensation lawyer for a legal dispute depending the unethical actions of the leader.

The researchers surveyed almost a thousand UK police officers and staff and 650 working professionals, asking them to rate their own personal ethical values and integrity and the levels of ethical leadership within their teams too. The researchers then also surveyed respondents on the likelihood of them raising concerns over the unethical practices of their co-workers.

From the study, the researchers found that ethical leadership had a very significant impact on the likelihood of workers to call out and challenge unethical behaviours and practices in their organisation from co-workers.

Professor Epitropaki says,

“Following on from a number of corporate scandals, there is a consensus that leaders must be ethical in their actions. Research has proven that ethical leadership improves job performance and workers attitudes, but little is known on whether it makes workers challenge others on ethical practices – an important company culture to have in organisations if you want to reduce all unethical practices and behaviours”.

Organisations can encourage leaders to be ethical through a number of ways, including creating a formal set of ethical principles to help leaders to clearly communicate such values to workers, instilling these values into everyday working practices, and through actively valuing integrity, all of which will boost workers’ ethical voices within the organisation, according to the researchers.

The researchers also suggest that the selection and recruitment process can be vital in attracting ethical individuals to the organisation, those who will challenge and voice their opinion on unethical practices.

Professor Graham says,

“Leaders play an incredibly important role in their company when it comes to ethical practices. They can instil the organisations values into their workers, and align their practices and behaviours with these so that the level of underhand, unethical practices are minimised. More importantly though, our research proves that if a leader not only instils ethics into their workers, but practices as they preach, it is more likely to make workers call out unethical practices if they see them”.

The research showcases the importance of leadership in creating a company culture where unethical practices are challenged amongst co-workers and not just by leaders themselves. By fostering such values at every level, leaders can ensure the wider organization is not tarnished by unethical practices, and there are no corporate scandals that involve the actions of their workers. That’s why most companies are doing some kind of personality test like the ones from Wonderlic to understand if a candidate has a good personality for the job.

This research was published in the Journal of Management. 

Photo by Anna Tarazevich from Pexels

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