The Emotional Aftermath of Unethical Behavior

Researchers find that when a company acts unethically, its employees might be the ones who shoulder much of the shame.

The Emotional Aftermath of Unethical Behavior

WHEN NEWS BREAKS about a business scandal—whether it’s Volkswagen falsifying its emissions data or Wells Fargo creating fake bank accounts to pad its profits—the media’s focus is often on making senior leadership accountable. But what is the aftermath of such wrongdoing on those throughout the organization who also engaged in unethical activity?

Julena Bonner, assistant professor at Utah State University in Logan, explored this question in a forthcoming study that was part of her work as a doctoral student at Oklahoma State University (OSU) in Stillwater. She conducted the work with co-authors Rebecca Greenbaum, associate professor of management at OSU, and Matt Quade, assistant professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and former OSU doctoral student.

The research team was interested in whether, after unethical behavior, people would try to save their reputations by “making up” for past behaviors by acting more ethically or engage in worse behaviors over time.

“The literature traditionally says that people manage their shame by trying to hide from those around them,” says Greenbaum. “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.”

The team conducted a “shame study” in which undergraduates first engaged in unethical conduct before responding to survey questions about the level of shame they felt. The researchers also surveyed working adults.

They found that people’s unethical behavior can be a threat to self-image, especially when their employers are focused on the bottom line. In this case, people feel shame both because of their bad behavior and because they feel they are associated with a dishonest boss.

“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” is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's September/October 2017 print issue. If you have comments or feedback on its contents, please contact us at [email protected].