Staff who view managers as ‘ethical’ likely to challenge wrongdoing

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Employees are more likely to challenge unethical behaviour in their organisation if their manager is seen as an ethical leader, a study has found.

Researchers at Durham University Business School, the University of Sheffield and the University of Northampton sought to understand whether there was a correlation between the employee’s perception of their manager being ethical and the likelihood of that employee speaking up about suspected wrongdoing by a colleague.

Previous research found that workers would act ethically themselves if their manager was seen as an ethical leader.

Their survey of 972 UK police officers and staff and 765 other professionals found that the perception of ethical leadership had a very significant impact on the likelihood of workers calling out suspected unethical behaviour by colleagues.

Respondents were asked to rate their own personal ethical values and integrity and the levels of ethical leadership within their teams.

Professor Olga Epitropaki, from Durham University Business School, said: “Following on from a number of corporate scandals, there is a consensus that leaders must be ethical in their actions. Research has proven that ethical leadership improves job performance and workers attitudes, but little is known on whether it makes workers challenge others on ethical practices – an important company culture to have in organisations if you want to reduce all unethical practices and behaviours.”

Leaders should promote their organisation’s values among their workforce, and align their practices and behaviours with these values, in order to minimise unethical behaviours, said Professor Les Graham, also from Durham University Business School.

“More importantly though, our research proves 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,” added Prof Graham.

The research, published in the Journal of Management, stated that it was possible that employees acted in this way because of internal regulations, or because they felt pressured to act in a way that pleased their manager.

The researchers recommended that organisations created a formal set of ethical principles to help leaders clearly communicate their values to workers. They should also instil these values into everyday working practices and show they actively value integrity.

It says: “Not only direct supervisors, but also co-workers and top managers can all help employees better understand their roles and ethical expectations in organisations. Thus, organisations should provide ethics training to all groups of organisational actors, in order to embed ethical messages deeply into the work context and make them salient to employees.”

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