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Scorn for leaders who do not denounce unethical behavior of subordinates clearly shown

Managers who relativize unethical behavior of their subordinates don´t do anything good to their organisation: US-Scientists have verified in an experiment with 111 test persons how relativization leads to scorn by observers because relativization is considered to be unethical, too.

What is striking in this experiment is the correlation between the ethical standards of the observers and the behavior of the managers. The higher the own ethical standards, the less observers address a negative attitude towards the managers, at least in the beginning. This corresponds with the fact that high ethical standards means tolerance and rejects quick repudiation. But the more and the longer managers kept euphemizing the unethical behavior in their teams, delegating responsibility on someone else or were belittling the consequences, the faster scorn develops in this group of observers with high ethical standards. Conversely: the lower the ethical standards of observers, the more disgusted they have been from the very start – independent of how relativizingly and how long managers have talked about the unethical behavior in their teams.

So the authors conclude: 1. People with low ethical standards have an inherently higher propensity to scorn others – regardless if there is really some unethical behavior happening or not. People with high ethical standards adopt their reactions accordingly. 2. Organisations ought to train their managers to communicate unethical behavior of subordnates clearly and directly, not to inadvertently damage their own reputation and finally also the public image of the organisation.

Journal of Applied Psychology, „Leader Social Accounts of Subordinates Unethical Behavior: Examining Observer Reactions to Leader Social Accounts With Moral Disengagement Language“, Dang/Mitchell(Umphress, 2017, Vol. 102, Nr. 10, 1448 – 1461

From practice:

To address unethical behavior of subordinates is a difficiult task for most superiors – if this has to take place in a small meeting or in the public alike. First you could easily accuse yourself not to have supervised your team professionally and second it is simply challenging to address unethical behavior alone and not punching the responsible persons behind, too.

Yes, I can advise to take each word of yours with a pinch of salt: 1. Express unmistakenly and proactively your attitude = don´t let others tear out of you if and where you draw the lines between fair and unfair, ethical and unethical behavior. 2. Keep in mind not to allow any speculations that in your opinion unethical behavior is a trivial issue,. 3 Train and exercise this type of statement in front of a camera. Even if your worst case does not mean necessarily that you have to show up in a TV-studio: your town hall meeting could be recorded by any smartphone available and can go viral.

And there is another aspect the study has not analysed separately: Managers who relativize unethical behavior of their subordinates might lose the committment of the vast majority of employees who carry based on high ethical standards any organisation.

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