Supervisor Requests for Unethical Actions: New Research

Finger on a scale in a busy market.

Has a supervisor ever asked you to do something unethical–something that made you uncomfortable? Did you do it or did you resist? Those were the questions that drove recent research I did with Logan Steele, Triparna de Vreede, Dejun Tony Kong and Janelle Wells, recently published in the peer-reviewed Human Performance. This research on supervisor requests for unethical actions showed a variety of reactions by employees. Some complied, but many did not.

How We Studied Unethical Requests for Unethical Actions

There has been a lot of research on unethical leadership, but very little has examined how supervisors try to get their employees to do their dirty work. For that reason we decided to take an exploratory qualitative approach by asking employed people to relay their experiences in an anonymous open-ended survey. We collected unethical request incidents from 110 employed individuals from an online panel. We asked them to describe an incident, and indicate how they responded. We then read their responses, looking for common themes in the sorts of things employees were asked to do.

What Kinds of Acts Are We Talking About?

We placed the requests into nine distinct themes. The six most mentioned were:

  • Falsification: Misleading others by putting false information on a document, for example, forging patient records to inflate the bill to an insurance company.
  • Dishonest transaction: Charging customers for something they did not receive, such as charging for a more expensive item than the person received.
  • Interpersonal deception: Lying to someone.
  • Mandated to work: Asking someone to work when not legally permitted, such as asking a minor to work more hours than permitted by law.
  • Theft: Stealing property.
  • Failing to report: Knowingly looking the other way when someone violated company policy or the law.

How Did Employees Respond?

Roughly a third of the sample said they complied with the supervisor requests for unethical actions, a third defied it, and a third only partially complied. In some cases they negotiated with the supervisor to reach a compromise. For example, when a teacher was asked to give a student a passing grade to make him sports eligible, the teacher offered to give the student an opportunity to make up missing work. When faced with an unethical request, employees said they considered the harm and benefits, including damage to their employment status by complying (being fired if higher management found out) versus defying (being punished by the supervisor). This weighing of consequences was an important factor in all three types of responses. Personal values were an important factor in deciding to defy the supervisor.

At the end of the day, one of the most important organizational factors in limiting unethical requests was accountability. When employees knew that higher management would support defiance, they felt empowered to say no to an unethical request. This suggests that avoiding supervisor requests for unethical actions depends upon building an ethical organizational climate in which policies and practices support ethical behavior, and encourage employees to just say no when a supervisor requests an unethical act.

Image generated with DALL-E by OpenAI.

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2 Replies to “Supervisor Requests for Unethical Actions: New Research”

  1. What an interesting and valuable research! Building an ethical climate in an organization seems like a viable solution to support ethical deicion-making of employees. It would be interesting to find out what would stimulate supervisors to be more ethical in the midst of an ethical organizational climate, so that power doesn’t trump ethics.

  2. Sigh. Paul, this IS a problem in the workplace. I left my last employer due to unethical behavior at multiple levels (e.g., spouse providing spouse at another company with lowball bid, same employee falsifying his professional credentials, management circling the wagons and asking me to look the other way, etc.). I ended up writing a case study about it, which I submitted to the Muma Case Review, so I got something out of it. Hahahahaha.

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