The more valuable your work is to your employer, the more your boss and co-workers are likely to overlook your questionable behavior, new research finds.
Low-performing employees are criticized more often for their bad behavior than high-performing employees are because employers often see these star performers' production as outweighing their wrongdoings, according to a study published in the journal Personnel Psychology.
"The employees' unethical behaviors can be harmful, but their high job performance is also quite important to the organization's success," the study's authors wrote. "In this vein, high job performance may offset unethical behavior enough to where the employee is less likely to be ostracized."
Employees who don't get much accomplished are more likely to be judged and excluded by their peers for wasting time or mismanaging resources, according to the research. [See Related Story: Want to Ward Off an Unethical Boss? Try Religion]
These low performers "not only violate moral norms, but they fail to fulfill role expectations, which would make them particularly difficult to work with, as evidenced by relationship conflict," the researchers wrote. "People, then, are expected to demonstrate their disapproval towards those who create conflict, by ostracizing them."
While bosses may look the other way when a high-performing employee acts poorly, they aren't helping their organization in the long run by doing so, the study's authors said.
"Unethical yet high-performing employees, their work groups and their organizations may exist on a false foundation that has the potential to crumble and cost employees their jobs and their organizations significant amounts of money," the researchers wrote.
Matthew Quade, the study's lead author and an assistant professor at Baylor University, said the research was designed to show why some employees are ostracized or excluded from the group while at work.
"Our research contributes to an ongoing conversation regarding whether people’s competence is more important than morality within the context of organizations," Quade said in a statement.
Based on their results, the study's authors think it is critical that employers create a culture where questionable behavior, regardless of performance, isn't tolerated.
"Leaders need to be particularly diligent in swiftly disciplining unethical behavior," the study's authors wrote. "Organizations might consider hiring and training ethical leaders who will demonstrate and espouse the importance of behaving ethically."
Developing a no-tolerance workplace also requires employers to provide practical ways for employees to respond to their co-workers' unethical behavior, the researchers said.
"Employees could be encouraged, and even rewarded, for discussing suspect behaviors with their leaders," the study's authors wrote.
The study was co-authored by Rebecca Greenbaum, an associate professor at Oklahoma State University; and Oleg Petrenko, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University.