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Top Performers Behaving Badly? Don't Let It Slide

image for Adam Gregor/Shutterstock
Adam Gregor/Shutterstock
  • The more valuable your work is to your employer, the more your boss and co-workers are likely to overlook questionable behavior, according to a study from 2016.
  • Senior management must set the example and model adherence to ethical standards or the rest of the organization will not believe they are sincere.
  • Allowing unethical behavior in an organization causes tension between employees as well as poor morale and can bring unwelcome oversight from regulators.

The more valuable an employee's contributions are to their employer, the more likely it is that the employee's boss and co-workers will tolerate questionable behavior by the high-performing employee compared to low-performing employees, according to the findings of a 2016 study published in Personnel Psychology.

Low-performing employees are criticized more often for their bad behavior than high-performing employees, because employers often see these star performers' production as outweighing their wrongdoings,  assert Matthew J. Quade, Rebecca L. Greenbaum, and Oleg V. Petrenko, the study's authors.

"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 study. [See Related Story: https://www.businessnewsdaily.com]

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.

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."

When high performers behave in unethical or even illegal ways, it has a deleterious impact on the morale of the remaining employees and can ratchet up tension in the workplace. According to Small Business Chron, "employees who feel acting ethically and following the rules will not get them ahead in the business sometimes feel a lack of motivation, which often leads to a decrease in performance."

Equally important, customers who learn of the improper behavior may take their business elsewhere, especially if the company does not seem to have an adequate response to the wrongdoing.

A no-tolerance policy is the best response. 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.

While a no-tolerance policy is a good first step, it will only really be taken seriously by employees if it is clear that top management supports and follows it as well. This is one of the reasons why accounting firms evaluate management integrity as part of their annual audit practice. According to Bizfluent, management integrity is the "tone at the top" – the attitude of management toward internal controls and the example that they set for other employees. As noted by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, "Employees pay close attention to the behavior and actions of their bosses, and they follow their lead. In short, employees will do what they witness their bosses doing."

If the senior managers are looking the other way, or are practicing unethical behavior themselves, it is not surprising that their team members will get the signal that doing so is an acceptable way of achieving success.

As an employee observing troubling behavior by a fellow worker, what should you do? Careerbright.com suggests you first make sure you know what you are seeing. Once you are satisfied the behavior is unethical, consult your company handbook if there is one. If there is no guideline available to you, the best approach is to talk to your manager. If the manager is the perpetrator, you are best advised to consult with human resources or a senior officer if there is someone with whom you feel comfortable.

The most common examples include:

  • Misuse of company time
  • Abusive behavior
  • Employee theft
  • Lying
  • Violating company internet policies 

There are many more examples that can be included in the list above. Careerbright notes that if the action you are witnessing goes beyond troublesome and appears to be illegal, you may need to get legal representation before you act. You are entitled to protection as a whistleblower, but you need to proceed carefully so that you receive the safeguards to which you are entitled and do not jeopardize your own career.

Business News Daily Editor

Business News Daily was founded in 2010 as a resource for small business owners at all stages of their entrepreneurial journey. Our site is focused exclusively on giving small business advice, tutorials and insider insights. Business News Daily is owned by Business.com.