When company loyalty is a crime

TEXAS A&M (US) — Corporate crime is not always driven by greed or ambition. Sometimes employees break the rules out of a desire to serve and protect the organization.

A new study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, is one of the first to examine unethical behavior that benefits the corporation—called “unethical pro-organizational behavior,” or UPB—and how it may be tied to the degree of organizational identification the individual feels.

The researchers define UPB as activity that is not specified by formal job descriptions; is either illegal or morally unacceptable to the larger community; and includes acts of commission (for example, cooking numbers to boost analyst projections and stock values) and omission (such as withholding information about the hazards of a pharmaceutical product).

In three studies Elizabeth Umphress, associate professor of management at Texas A&M University, and colleagues found there was not a direct relationship between organizational identification and UPB. However, there was a relationship between the two if a third element, positive reciprocity, was involved.

If an individual feels a need to reciprocate when something has been done for them and also strongly identifies with the organization, then they are more likely to commit a crime to benefit the company. Employees who strongly identify with their organization feel obligated to protect and maintain their membership in the organization.

They also find that people can be primed to commit UPBs—when they showed a test group a video that enhanced their feeling of organizational identification, they were more likely to agree to UPBs (if they scored highly on measures of positive reciprocity) than those who had seen an unrelated video.

Both organizational identification and positive reciprocity are good traits for an employee to possess, says Umphress. They can make an employee more diligent, productive and loyal.

Managers need to be aware, however, that they can interact in this negative way. Umphress stressed that hiring decisions need not be made on this criteria, but that managers should be aware of the degree of these traits in their employees and understand that in the right circumstance “the employee might feel compelled or feel that it’s their duty to do something unethical . . . to help protect the organization.”

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