The Price Leaders Pay for Cutting Ethical Corners

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Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for leaders to ask their employees to cross ethical lines. Consider the following examples from a pilot study we recently conducted: A sales representative at a retail company was asked to grant credit approval to unqualified customers who were friends of her supervisor; a field technician at a communications company was asked by management to close telephone repair tickets for elderly customers whose phones were not fixed; and an engineer in the transportation industry was asked to approve projects that he felt were at risk for structural failure. Examples like these exist in myriad settings. In a global survey of over 13,000 employees, a median of 22% of respondents across sectors reported feeling pressure to compromise standards at work.1 In our recent research, which includes several survey-based studies as well as laboratory experiments, we found that such pressure often comes from being specifically asked to engage in behavior that is unethical or morally questionable — what we refer to as receiving an unethical request.

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