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Behavioral Science

New MIT Sloan research explores the paradox of employees’ unethical pro-organization behavior and the harm it causes them

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Cambridge, Mass., August 18, 2021—When employees participate in unethical behaviors meant to help an organization, such as lying about products or withholding negative information about the organization, this can result in unintended harm to the employees themselves. A new research paper from the MIT Sloan School of Management explores this paradox of “unethical pro-organizational behavior” (UPB).

Written by Jackson Lu, Mitsui Career Development Professor and assistant professor of Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management, along with Xin Lucy Liu, Hongyu Zhang and Yahua Cai, the paper suggests that UPB triggers emotional ambivalence by simultaneously inducing both guilt and pride—producing a state of anxiety that can spill over into employees’ personal lives.

Unlike unethical, pro-self behavior—done to benefit oneself rather than the organization—UPB can induce pride, since it is a positive moral emotion associated with achievement. Employees who engaged in UPB may feel proud because they acted to advance their organization’s interests.

“When employees perform unethical, pro-organizational behavior—even though the intention is to help the organization—the behavior can hurt the employees themselves by inducing work-life conflict,” says Lu who is a finalist in this year’s Thinkers50 Awards. “Employees can ruminate over their unethical, pro-organizational behavior, even when spending time with family. That anxiety, in turn, can interfere with their work lives.”

While other research has focused on job characteristics that may cause work-life conflict—such as heavy workload and long hours—this research focuses on how morally paradoxical behaviors at work can impact one’s non-work life.

The research, conducted in China, included complementary studies of three different types of workers: hairstylists, accountants, and general office employees. These subjects were selected for the studies, in part, because they had ample interactions with clients and their wages weren’t commission-based—making their actions less likely to be selfish and more likely to be intended to benefit the organization.

The results showed that engaging in UPB positively predicted employees experiencing anxiety followed by work-life conflict. For example, the hairstylists in the study reported participating in behaviors such as exaggerating the truth about their salon’s services, coaxing customers into buying unnecessary products, and concealing information from customers that could be damaging to the salon. One hairstylist said in an interview, “To protect our salon’s image, I sometimes lie to customers about our salon’s hair products being natural and harmless…even though I know they are artificial with parabens…I feel uneasy whether I did the right thing…and chew it over even while I’m watching TV with my family after work.”  

“Employers may see UPB as a sign of loyalty from employees—that they’re willing to go out of their way to do unethical behaviors on behalf of the organization,” says Prof. Lu. “Employers may not realize the possibility that, counterintuitively, UPB may harm the employees themselves. Organizations should be aware of the detrimental effects of UPB on employees’ lives.”

Beyond harming employees, UPB can also harm customers and stakeholders. In addition, if employees are unhappy and have high sickness, absence and turnover rates, this can ultimately hurt organizations.

The research suggests organizations should discourage such behaviors. This could be done by explicitly rewarding ethical behaviors (e.g., “most ethical employee award”). Organizations can encourage employees to think about what they “could do” that aligns with ethical values, rather than what they “should do” out of loyalty to the company.

“To reduce UPB and its emotional toll on employees, organizations should focus on how they can align organizational goals with ethical values,” says Prof. Lu.

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