WORKPLACE / NOV. 28, 2014
version 7, draft 7

How an Unethical Boss Hurts Your Image

When it comes to behaving ethically at work, I’m sure most of us believe that our integrity is beyond reproach and that our personal values are enough to keep us on the straight and narrow.

What if those around us behave badly though, and especially if that person is our boss?  A new study reveals that our reputation can very easily become tainted by association with someone behaving badly higher up in our organisation.

Research in brief

  • Scandals caused by high ranking staff impact both the organisation and other employees of that organisation (guilt by association)
  • Scandals from low ranking staff do not carry the same weight

The research, conducted by academics from Stanford University, explored the various ethical scandals that have hit the headlines over the past few years. Of course, it’s certainly true that people commit unethical acts while lower down the organisation, but it was found in these instances that their employer and colleagues were seldom guilty by association. 

This was not always the case though. Thus was born the hypothesis that the social status of the corrupt employee was crucial to the collateral damage suffered by both their peers and their employers.

The findings in a nutshell

The researchers recruited participants to read a news story on a scandal whereby an employee was found guilty of fraud.  The story was manipulated for some participants so the employee was high ranking, whilst for others they were entry level.

Each participant was then asked to decide whether to hire someone that had just happened to work for the same, scandal-hit company.

It emerged that people were much less likely to recommend hiring someone who shared an employer with the high ranking miscreant, than if they were a lower ranking employee. This was the case even though there was no indication given that the two people had worked together, or indeed even knew of one another.

The researchers believe that ethical breaches by senior managers are deemed more damaging to be protypical. Simply put, this means that they’re seen as something that embodies the characteristics and basic qualities of their organisation. So if the leader is a cheat, that means the organisation is dishonest too.

All of which is, of course, not good news if you happen to work for such an organisation. It suggests that no amount of good behaviour on your behalf can drag you out from under the cloud your leader leaves behind.

Is there anything you can do?

So what can you do if one of your high ranking colleagues become wrapped up in scandal? An obvious first step is to downplay the seniority and status of the individual concerned. If the wider public perceive this person to be relatively low ranking, then the whole affair may move on without leaving a trace.

If that’s difficult to do, the alternative approach might be to place a big emphasis on all the ways in which your organisation is different to the disgraced individual.  You’re trying to big up the differences and how this person is not representative of you as an organisation, but on them as a flawed individual.

An interesting side effect of all this of course is that it may actually be a bad idea for senior managers to take responsibility for the transgressions of those beneath them.  Whilst doing so may seem as though it’s a good idea, this research suggests it may end up tainting the entire organisation.

Have any of you worked for an organisation that became embroiled in scandal?  How did they respond?


Image: iStock

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