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Sunday, May 28, 2023

Above the law? How motivated moral reasoning shapes evaluations of high performer unethicality

Campbell, E. M., Welsh, D. T., & Wang, W. (2023).
Journal of Applied Psychology.
Advance online publication.


Recent revelations have brought to light the misconduct of high performers across various fields and occupations who were promoted up the organizational ladder rather than punished for their unethical behavior. Drawing on principles of motivated moral reasoning, we investigate how employee performance biases supervisors’ moral judgment of employee unethical behavior and how supervisors’ performance-focus shapes how they account for moral judgments in promotion recommendations. We test our model in three studies: a field study of 587 employees and their 124 supervisors at a Fortune 500 telecom company, an experiment with two samples of working adults, and an experiment that directly varied explanatory mechanisms. Evidence revealed a moral double standard such that supervisors rendered less punitive judgment of the unethical acts of higher performing employees. In turn, supervisors’ bottom-line mentality (i.e., fixation on achieving results) influenced the degree to which they incorporated their punitive judgments into promotability considerations. By revealing the moral leniency afforded to higher performers and the uneven consequences meted out by supervisors, our results carry implications for behavioral ethics research and for organizations seeking to retain and promote their higher performers while also maintaining ethical standards that are applied fairly across employees.

Here is the opening:

Allegations of unethical conduct perpetrated by prominent, high-performing professionals have been exploding across newsfeeds (Zacharek et al., 2017). From customer service employees and their managers (e.g., Wells Fargo fake accounts; Levitt & Schoenberg, 2020), to actors, producers, and politicians (e.g., long-term corruption of Belarus’ president; Simmons, 2020), to reporters and journalists (e.g., the National Broadcasting Company’s alleged cover-up; Farrow, 2019), to engineers and executives (e.g., Volkswagen’s emissions fraud; Vlasic, 2017), the public has been repeatedly shocked by the egregious behaviors committed by individuals recognized as high performers within their respective fields (Bennett, 2017). 

In the wake of such widespread unethical, corrupt, and exploitative behavior, many have wondered how supervisors could have systematically ignored the conduct of high-performing individuals for so long while they ascended organizational ladders. How could such misconduct have resulted in their advancement to leadership roles rather than stalled or derailed the transgressors’ careers?

The story of Carlos Ghosn at Nissan hints at why and when individuals’ unethical behavior (i.e., lying, cheating, and stealing; Treviño et al., 2006, 2014) may result in less punitive judgment (i.e., the extent to which observed behavior is morally evaluated as negative, incorrect, or inappropriate). During his 30-year career in the automotive industry, Ghosn differentiated himself as a high performer known for effective cost-cutting, strategic planning, and spearheading change; however, in 2018, he fell from grace over allegations of years of financial malfeasance and embezzlement (Leggett, 2019). When allegations broke, Nissan’s CEO stood firm in his punitive judgment that Ghosn’s behavior “cannot be tolerated by the company” (Kageyama, 2018). Still, many questioned why the executives levied judgment on the misconduct that they had overlooked for years. Tokyo bureau chief of the New York Times, Motoko Rich, reasoned that Ghosn “probably would have continued to get away with it … if the company was continuing to be successful. But it was starting to slow down. There were signs that the magic had gone” (Barbaro, 2019). Similarly, an executive pointed squarely to the relevance of Ghosn’s performance, lamenting: “what [had he] done for us lately?” (Chozick & Rich, 2018). As a high performer, Ghosn’s unethical behavior evaded punitive judgment and career consequences from Nissan executives, but their motivation to leniently judge Ghosn’s behavior seemed to wane with his level of performance. In her reporting, Rich observed: “you can get away with whatever you want as long as you’re successful. And once you’re not so successful anymore, then all that rule-breaking and brashness doesn’t look so attractive and appealing anymore” (Barbaro, 2019).