Durham University: Workers more likely to challenge unethical behaviour if their boss is ethical too

Workers are much more likely to challenge unethical behaviour in their organisation if their manager is seen as an ethical leader, according to new Business School research. The research was conducted by Professors Olga Epitropaki and Les Graham alongside colleagues from the University of Sheffield and the University of Northampton.

Following on from a number of corporate scandals, there is consensus that leaders must be ethical in their actions. Whilst the majority of previous research into ethical leadership is on the impact it has on workers acting ethically, this study looked to understand whether ethical leadership made workers more likely to call out unethical practices too.

The researchers surveyed 1,737 UK police officers and staff and 448 working professionals, asking them to rate the match of their personal ethical values to those of the organisational code of ethics, their integrity identity and the levels of ethical leadership within their teams. They also surveyed respondents on the likelihood of them raising concerns over the unethical practices of their co-workers.

Study findings and managerial implications

The study found that ethical leadership had a very significant impact on the likelihood of workers to call out and challenge unethical behaviours and practices in their organisation from co-workers. Ethical leaders can foster an important company culture in organisations that can help reduce unethical practices and behaviour. They serve as important cues signalling the organisation’s ethical values and encourage followers to internalise those values. They further make salient aspects of the followers’ selves that relate to ethics, such as their integrity identities.

In turn, organisations can encourage leaders to be ethical through a number of ways, including:

creating a formal set of ethical principles to help leaders to clearly communicate appropriate values to workers
instilling these values into everyday working practices, and
through actively valuing integrity.

All of these could help boost workers’ preparedness to challenge unethical behaviour by their co-workers.

The researchers also suggest that although selection and recruitment processes can be useful in attracting ethical individuals into organisations, the work context employees become part of (especially the ethical cues and signals sent by their leaders) can influence their values and ethical identities and ultimately increase their willingness to challenge and voice their opinion on unethical practices.

Importance of training and awareness

Managers play a critical role in encouraging followers to speak up about unethical issues that could potentially result in severe outcomes for reputational damage. Thus, organisations should invest in training to increase managers’ awareness and knowledge of their ethical values and standards, to further encourage them to communicate these values to followers.

Professors Epitropaki and Graham said:

“Leaders play an incredibly important role in their company when it comes to ethical practices. They can instil the organisation’s values into their workers and align their practices and behaviours with these so that the level of underhand, unethical practices is minimised. More importantly though, our research shows that if a leader not only instils ethics into their workers, but practices as they preach, it is more likely to make workers call out unethical practices if they see them.”

The research showcases the importance of leadership in creating a company culture where unethical practices are challenged amongst co-workers and not just by leaders themselves. By fostering such values at every level, leaders can ensure the wider organisation is not tarnished by unethical practices, and there are no corporate scandals that involve the actions of their workers.