Employees who do the right thing may resent colleagues who don’t

Doing the right thing takes up time and energy. Is important that organisations reward both performance and ethical conduct?

While behaving ethically is generally regarded as good for business, a study has revealed that there are significant risks behind it too.

Doing the right thing can be onerous for employees, as it takes up their time and energy. And if they think they are more ethical than their co-workers, this can provoke a negative reaction that is potentially detrimental to themselves, their colleagues and the organisation.

In the paper “If Only My Coworker Was More Ethical”: When Ethical and Performance Comparisons Lead to Negative Emotions, Social Undermining and Ostracism, researchers reveal the complexities of “upholding ethics within organisations”. They show that an employee who feels ethically superior to a colleague can also feel dislike or disdain for them. This negativity grows if they perceive their peer to be a higher performer, and can lead to the co-worker being belittled or ostracised. 

So why do workers who see themselves as upstanding behave unethically towards colleagues? Where performance is all-important at work, ethical but lower-performing employees may resent less ethical employees who reap the rewards of higher job performance, the study explains. This triggers a fight or flight response, say Matthew J Quade of Baylor University, Rebecca L Greenbaum of Oklahoma State University and Mary B Mawritz of Drexel University.

The team carried out two studies to explore the effect of employees’ ethical comparisons. In the first, 310 pairs of employees (working in comparable positions, with similar education and tenure) were surveyed. Each pair consisted of a ‘focal employee’ and a ‘comparison co-worker’.

Focal employees compared themselves with their co-workers in relation to perceived ethics and performance. They rated their levels of negative emotions (disgust, contempt or tension) towards the comparison co-workers.

The comparison co-workers rated how often they experienced ‘social undermining’ behaviour (insults, spreading of rumours) and ostracism (being ignored, avoided) from the focal employees.

In a second study, 121 students were invited to respond to ethical dilemmas and complete a performance task (an anagram test). They were then informed whether their ethical decision-making and task scores were higher or lower than those of a comparison classmate.

There were four experimental conditions. In the more ethical, lower-performance condition, participants were told that although they scored higher in ethical decision-making, their lower score on task performance meant their peer, rather than themselves, would receive a monetary reward. They were then asked to rate their responses towards their co-worker.

Both studies found that “ethical and performance comparisons interacted to predict negative emotions and fight and flight behavioural reactions”. To avoid this outcome, organisations should not celebrate higher performance achieved through questionable or unethical behaviour, the paper concludes, adding: “It is important for organisations and managers to reward both performance and ethical conduct.”

This article was originally published in Work. magazine, Summer 2018.

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