Making it Easy to Morally Object

WELLMAN, Ned | MAYER, David M. | ONG, Madeline | DERUE, D. Scott

Unethical practices in the workplace, such as employee fraud, abusive supervision and sexual harassment, cost the global economy trillions of dollars each year. To prevent ethical misconduct from spreading insidiously within organizations, employees must be empowered to speak out against behaviors that they believe to be morally wrong. This was the focus of a pioneering study conducted by HKUST’s Professor Madeline Ong and her co-researchers, with far-reaching implications for how organizations can and should limit unethical behavior.

To encourage employees to report wrongdoing in the workplace, most organizations have implemented formal ethical policies or codes of conduct. In many cases, employees’ moral objection—defined by the researchers as “speaking up or taking action to oppose a morally questionable practice, or refusing to participate in the practice”—not only saves organizations money but also reaffirms important shared values in the workplace. The whistleblowers may even receive better performance appraisals.

In some cases, however, employees who morally object face a backlash. “Unfortunately,” the researchers explain, “they may be perceived as less warm (i.e., pleasant, nice) than members who comply with ethically questionable procedures.” They may thus face social sanctions, such as ostracism and character defamation. Such consequences may in turn discourage other employees from standing up for what they believe in.

This raises an important question. Why do the outcomes of moral objection vary between actors? In search of an answer, the researchers developed and tested a novel model of “the psychological pathways that influence whether moral objection produces positive or negative observer reactions.” Most research in this area has focused on observer self-threat. “Observers who have previously complied with an ethically questionable activity experience self-image threat when someone else objects,” the researchers tell us. Such observers thus tend to react negatively when employees speak out.

Taking a step further, the team proposed an alternative psychological mechanism influencing reactions to employees’ moral objection: expectations of an individual’s role in the organization. They focused on “legitimate power”—power that stems from one’s formal position within the organizational hierarchy. To test their model, the researchers conducted three experiments with real employees to find out how role expectations mediated reactions to moral objection. As expected, the results suggested that “actors’ legitimate power plays a key role in determining how their moral objection or compliance is received.”

Personal perceptions matter. Individuals who conform to role expectations tend to be viewed as “warm, pleasant, and nice,” the researchers note. As employees in positions of authority are expected to behave confidently and assertively, moral objection is seen as consistent with their organizational role. “As a result,” write the researchers, “observers are likely to perceive moral objectors who are high in legitimate power as warmer than low-power objectors […] and less likely to subject them to social sanctions.”

These novel findings have important practical implications for organizations. As taking a stance against ethical misconduct is less costly for individuals who are high in legitimate power, high-level employees who morally object can avoid an interpersonal backlash by emphasizing their authority. Meanwhile, organizations should encourage low-power employees to speak out by reassuring them that moral objection is always the right thing to do, regardless of one’s status in the organization.