How Your Boss's Ethics Can Hurt Your Career

Posted on December 1, 2014

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Professionals may believe they can maintain an ethical reputation by merely refraining from morally questionable practices: Don't steal, cheat, or bully others. But this alone is not enough. If a higher-up in your organization is found guilty of unethical behavior, your reputation can become tainted merely because you work at the same place.

Take Enron. The fraudulent business dealings of top executives led to one of the biggest scandals of the decade. Rank-and-file employees lost their jobs, health care and life savings. But on top of all that, many were confronted with another consequence of the scandal: The public perception that any person involved with Enron was corrupt and dishonest, hurting their prospects at future employment. Despite the fact that it was a handful of top executives who were responsible for the corruption, everyone employed at Enron suffered reputation damage as a result - even employees who played no part in the fraudulent behavior that brought the company crashing into bankruptcy.

More broadly, how does one person's unethical behavior contaminate the reputations of their colleagues and subordinates?

In new research in press at Social Psychological and Personality Science, which I conducted with my co-author at Stanford University, BenoƮt Monin, we examined those questions.

We noticed that in many publicized scandals, the people implicated in the corruption are often powerful, high-status executives. Unethical behavior can be committed by less-powerful people, such as when lower-level employees are accused of skimming, but in those cases, organizations - and other employees - do not seem to suffer as much reputational damage.

Based on that observation, we speculated that the social status of a corrupt individual plays a key role in determining how much reputational damage their colleagues subsequently suffer. We predicted that when high-status individuals engage in fraudulent behavior, as was the case with Enron executives and with Diederik Stapel, fellow organization members come under greater suspicion than when lower-status individuals are exposed. In other words, the fallout from scandals involving higher-status executives is particularly likely to trickle down and to contaminate the reputations of their colleagues.

Category(s):Career Development and Change, Workplace Issues

Source material from LiveScience