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March 10, 2009


Amid the push by many employers to create ethics guidelines, a new study shows that the success of such programs depends in part on whether employees perceive their organization treats people in a generally fair way.

The study, published recently in Business Ethics Quarterly, was co-authored by Linda Trevino, professor of organizational behavior and chairwoman of the Department of Management and Organization in Penn State's Smeal College of Business, and Gary R. Weaver of the University of Delaware.

"When they perceive the organization to be unfair, employees engage in harmful unethical behavior in order to rebalance the scales of justice and improve their own outcomes at the organization's expense--by stealing, for example," says Trevino. "However, when they perceive that the organization treats employees fairly, they give back by going above and beyond the call of duty to help management, by reporting ethical problems."

The study, "Organizational Justice and Ethics Program Follow-Through: Influences on Employees' Harmful and Helpful Behavior," looked at practices at four large corporations.

Although ethics programs are widespread, they are sometimes perceived to be "window dressing" only. To respond positively to them, employees need to perceive that their organization means what it says by following through on ethical failures and addressing problems, the study found.

Follow-through is perceived as important because it is a matter of justice. Ethics programs are likely to make fairness issues particularly salient just because they call attention to issues of ethics in the organization.

"Consistently following through on espoused policies also indicates that an organization values procedural justice, and the discipline that comes from following up on ethical failures indicates that retributive justice expectations are taken seriously," says Trevino.


The study found that employees' perceptions of ethics program follow through decreases unethical behavior and increases the extent to which employees will support an ethics program by reporting problems.

Trevino notes that the impact of such follow-through is even higher when employees perceive the organization to be unfair. When employees perceive unfair treatment, they are motivated to rebalance the scales of justice. Therefore, company efforts to act on ethical problems have even greater impact.

A key study finding was the strong relationship between perceived general fair treatment and ethics-related outcomes.

"Because employees today are more likely to work unsupervised than in the past in jobs that are less precisely defined, they face opportunities for a broad array of unethical behavior directed against the organization," says Trevino. "These employees have many opportunities to engage in covert actions that have the potential to subvert or harm the organization and its goals. We found that a broad spectrum of unethical actions was significantly lower if employees believed that their organizations generally treated people fairly."

Firms also rely upon employees to help the organization by detecting and reporting ethical problems. "Obviously, following through on actual or suspected ethical failures can serve as a deterrent to unethical behavior, but our data indicates it also encourages employees to report ethical problems."

The results of the study also have implications for ethics and compliance managers.

"Ethics programs are generally administered separately from other human resource programs and practices. Therefore, ethics program administrators may have little influence on employees' broader evaluations of organizational justice," says Trevino. "Our results suggest that ethics/compliance management should be more tightly coupled with the management of the broader organizational culture to improve employees' perceptions of fairness in the organization in general, and in the ethics/compliance program."


Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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