Many corporate scandals are made possible with employees’ help and support of their leader’s unethical decisions and actions. Bernie Madoff, for example, relied heavily on employees to perpetuate the largest financial fraud in U.S. history. Ashley Fulmer and her coauthors, Ryan Fehr at the University of Washington and Fong Keng-Highberger at Nanyang Technological University, investigated why some employees help their unethical leaders.
They focused on the trait “moral disengagement”—a propensity to cognitively restructure actions to minimize moral conflicts and discomfort. Individuals who are high on moral disengagement may reframe wrongdoing by downplaying the harm or dehumanizing the victim of their actions. Given the close working relationship many employees have with their leader, employees with this trait may morally disengage from their leader’s morally questionable actions.
Dr. Fulmer’s research with her colleagues supported this. They found that employees high on moral disengagement are more likely to trust an unethical leader, despite being aware of the leader’s unethical actions. The higher trust stems from perceived similarity between their own values and the values of the leader. As a result, employees high on moral disengagement are more likely to support the unethical leader, such as by taking on extra responsibilities for the leader and defending the leader from outside threats. In this way, the finding identifies one way that employees may perpetuate their leader’s unethical actions.
The research has recently been published in Personnel Psychology.