Unethical Workers Accepted—If They're Productive

Employees who behave badly but don't get results are much more likely to be ostracized at work.
Why is it that some employees who mismanage resources and sometimes even cross ethical lines still are accepted or even appreciated at work? Because they continue to be productive and get results. Employees who behave badly but don’t get results are much more likely to be ostracized at work.

These are the conclusions of a new study by co-authors Matthew Quade, assistant professor of management at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business in Waco, Texas; Rebecca L. Greenbaum, associate professor of management at the Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater; and Oleg V. Petrenko, assistant professor of management at Texas Tech University’s Rawls College of Business in Lubbock.

The researchers conducted three studies and surveyed 1,040 people, including more than 300 pairs of supervisors and their employees. They learned that high job performance may lead supervisors to ignore moral violations. These results exist regardless of gender and regardless of the organization’s ethical culture. However, when unethical employees are also low-performing, co-workers are more likely to show open disapproval and even ostracize the offending individuals.

According to Quade, while unethical behavior might be overlooked in some cases, it is always detrimental to teams and the organization. The study suggests that organizations can curtail employees' improper behavior in two ways: by making it clear that unethical behavior will not be tolerated, regardless of employee performance; and by providing a more functional way for employees to respond to unethical co-workers.

‘“I Don’t Want to Be Near You Unless…’: The Interactive Effect of Unethical Behavior and Performance onto Workplace Ostracism” was first published online April 29, 2016, in Personnel Psychology.