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Performance matters: when supervisors socially accept unethical behavior

Dongqing Zhu (Department of Psychology, Beijing Key Lab of Learning and Cognition, Capital Normal University, Beijing, China)
Zhiying Zhang (Department of Psychology, Beijing Key Lab of Learning and Cognition, Capital Normal University, Beijing, China)
Chunzhen Wang (Department of Psychology, Beijing Key Lab of Learning and Cognition, Capital Normal University, Beijing, China)

Journal of Managerial Psychology

ISSN: 0268-3946

Article publication date: 23 March 2021

Issue publication date: 29 March 2021

Abstract

Purpose

It is generally believed that supervisors would deter employee unethical behavior. However, drawing from social exchange theory and the theory of moral disengagement, we posit that supervisors are more willing to tolerate employee unethical behavior through moral disengagement when the perpetrator is a high performing employee.

Design/methodology/approach

Study 1, which measured employee unethical behavior in a specific group of doctors through a time-lagged survey, and Study 2, which manipulated employee unethical behavior with a diverse sample by a vignette-based experiment, provided convergent support for our hypothesized 1st-stage moderated mediation model. Hierarchical regression, bootstrapping and ANOVA are used to test our hypotheses.

Findings

Although supervisors generally showed a low social acceptance of an employee who engaged in unethical behavior, they were more likely to socially accept the perpetrator through moral disengagement when the employee was a high rather than a low performer.

Practical implications

Given that supervisor's tolerance of employee unethical behavior may be more dangerous than employee unethical behavior itself, organizations should set up an ethics committee to handle top managers' unethical behavior and consider morality equally important with performance in management practice.

Originality/value

The current research extends research on the interpersonal consequences of employee unethical behavior, explains how moral disengagement promotes social acceptance and identifies the moderating effect of job performance in the process.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

This research was financially funded by the programs of National Natural Science Foundation of China (71502117) and Social Science Research General Program of Beijing Municipal Commission of Education (SM202010028011).

Zhiying Zhang and Chunzhen Wang contribute equally to the article.

Citation

Zhu, D., Zhang, Z. and Wang, C. (2021), "Performance matters: when supervisors socially accept unethical behavior", Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 36 No. 3, pp. 213-225. https://doi.org/10.1108/JMP-12-2019-0686

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

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