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Why and when does ethical leadership evoke unethical follower behavior?

Karianne Kalshoven (Business Research Centre, Inholland University of Applied Sciences, Haarlem, the Netherlands)
Hans van Dijk (Department of Organization Studies, Tilburg University, Tilburg, the Netherlands)
Corine Boon (University of Amsterdam Business School, Amsterdam, the Netherlands)

Journal of Managerial Psychology

ISSN: 0268-3946

Article publication date: 14 March 2016




In examining whether social exchange or social identity mechanisms drive the relationship between ethical leadership and unethical pro-organizational behavior (UPB), the purpose of this paper is to argue that the mechanism linking ethical leadership and UPB varies for different levels of job autonomy.


Data were requested from 225 employees in several Dutch organizations, of which 156 questionnaires were returned. The authors used multilevel path analysis in MPlus to test the hypotheses, which allows for simultaneous estimation of different regression equations and for testing the significance of indirect effects.


In line with the hypotheses, results revealed a direct relationship between ethical leadership and UPB when followers have little job autonomy. For followers high on job autonomy, the authors found that ethical leadership relates to UPB via organizational identification.

Practical implications

It is advised to use ethical leadership with care when it focusses on reciprocity and identification. The results suggest that followers may be inclined to justify their unethical actions by appealing to the principle of higher loyalty – believing they are just doing what the organization wants them to do.


Previous research has used social learning theory to show that ethical leadership is likely to stimulate and transfer ethical norms and behaviors. The current study however demonstrates the reciprocal and dark side of ethical leadership, as the authors found that ethical leadership can encourage UPB for followers with low job autonomy.



A previous version of this paper was presented at the Academy of Management conference, 2013.


Kalshoven, K., van Dijk, H. and Boon, C. (2016), "Why and when does ethical leadership evoke unethical follower behavior?", Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 31 No. 2, pp. 500-515.



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