In this paper we explore the antecedents and consequences of employees’ unethical pro-organizational behavior (UPB) through the lens of moral decoupling—a moral reasoning process whereby individuals separate their perceptions of morality from their perceptions of performance. First, we argue that employees increase their engagement in UPBs when they (1) see their supervisors doing the same and (2) believe that their supervisors endorse moral decoupling. Second, we argue that employees’ UPBs are only positively related to supervisors’ evaluations of their job performance when supervisors themselves report that they morally decouple. We test these hypotheses in a field sample of supervisor–employee dyads and two experimental studies. This combination of studies highlights the complex link between ethics and perceptions of performance within organizations.
In both the organizational sciences (Mitchell, Vogel, & Folger, 2015; O'Reilly, Aquino, & Skarlicki, 2016) and the broader psychological literature (Goodwin, 2015; Goodwin, Piazza, & Rozin, 2014), scholars have noted a tendency for individuals who act unethically to be perceived less positively than individuals who act ethically (Berry, Sackett, & Wiemann, 2007; Goodwin, 2015; Sackett & Harris, 1984; Sackett & Wanek, 1996). For example, when employees act unethically, they tend to be punished (Bauman, Tost, & Ong, 2016; Trevino & Youngblood, 1990), ostracized (Feinberg, Willer, & Schultz, 2014), and even fired from their jobs (Huhman, 2018). Similarly, research has shown that employees who act ethically are perceived as better leaders (Brown, Treviño, & Harrison, 2005) and as better performers than their peers (Gatewood & Carroll, 1991; James, 2000; Jose & Thibodeaux, 1999). Typically, employees act unethically in an attempt to obtain better outcomes for themselves. For example, they lie to their coworkers to cover up their mistakes, steal supplies from their offices to avoid buying the supplies themselves, and misrepresent their performance to their supervisors to attain raises, promotions, and other benefits (Treviño, Nieuwenboer, & Kish-Gephart, 2014). For these self-focused unethical behaviors, it is understandable that employees’ unethical behavior would be negatively perceived. However, employees’ unethical actions can also be motivated by a desire to benefit their organizations—a phenomenon Umphress and Bingham (2011) refer to as unethical proorganizational behavior (UPB). Examples of UPB include misrepresenting the truth to make one’s organization look good, exaggerating the quality of the organization’s products or services to customers, and concealing damaging information about the organization from the public (Umphress, Bingham, & Mitchell, 2010). At its core, UPB involves an inherent tension between organizational performance and ethical principles, sacrificing the latter in the name of the former.