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Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 117, Issue 1, pp 153–172 | Cite as

The Joint Effects of Machiavellianism and Ethical Environment on Whistle-Blowing

  • Derek Dalton
  • Robin R. Radtke
Article

Abstract

Given the importance of the Machiavellianism construct on informing a wide range of ethics research, we focus on gaining a better understanding of Machiavellianism within the whistle-blower context. In this regard, we examine the effect of Machiavellianism on whistle-blowing, focusing on the underlying mechanisms through which Machiavellianism affects whistle-blowing. Further, because individuals who are higher in Machiavellianism (high Machs) are expected to be less likely to report wrongdoing, we examine the ability of an organization’s ethical environment to increase whistle-blowing intentions of high Machs. Results from a sample of 116 MBA students support our premise that Machiavellianism is negatively related to whistle-blowing. Further, we find that Machiavellianism has an indirect effect on whistle-blowing through perceived benefits and perceived responsibility. Finally, we find that a strong ethical environment, relative to a weak ethical environment, increases whistle-blowing intentions incrementally more for individuals who are higher in Machiavellianism. Taken together, these findings extend our understanding of how Machiavellianism and an organization’s ethical environment impact whistle-blowing.

Keywords

Ethical environment Machiavellianism Ethical disposition Whistle-blowing 

Introduction

In recent years, a number of large-scale corporate scandals (e.g., Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom) have had a devastating impact on a wide range of individual investors, employees, creditors, and other market stakeholders (Robinson et al. 2012; Seifert et al. 2010). The majority of these scandals and other examples of corporate wrongdoing are disclosed by individuals within the corporate organization, commonly referred to as whistle-blowers (Mesmer-Magnus and Viswesvaran 2005). Wrongdoing by someone within the corporate organization (i.e., corporate wrongdoing) includes illegal, immoral, or illegitimate practices that can harm both individuals outside of the organization (e.g., fraudulent financial actions that harm investors, creditors, or customers) and/or individuals within the organization (e.g., an employee who hides or fails to disclose a work safety issue, thereby jeopardizing other employees’ safety). A whistle-blower who discloses an act of corporate wrongdoing at an early stage can prevent large-scale corporate losses along with harm to a large number of market stakeholders (Tavakoli et al. 2003). Accordingly, gaining a better understanding of the factors associated with whistle-blowing (e.g., Mesmer-Magnus and Viswesvaran 2005) along with how to promote the disclosure of wrongdoing (e.g., Seifert et al. 2010) are important areas of research.

One factor that is likely to have a significant impact on whistle-blowing is an individual’s level of Machiavellianism. Individuals who are higher in Machiavellianism (i.e., high Machs) tend to make ethical decisions based primarily on self-interest and use deception and manipulation to achieve their objectives. Furthermore, high Machs are more likely to ignore ethical norms when confronted with moral issues (McLaughlin 1970; Christie and Geis 1970); thus, high Machs tend to be more accepting of unethical behavior and are oftentimes more likely to behave less ethically (e.g., O’Fallon and Butterfield 2005). Therefore, we expect that an individual’s level of Machiavellianism will play an important role in the whistle-blowing decision.

In this study, we focus on gaining a better understanding of Machiavellianism within the whistle-blower context for two primary reasons. First, prior research has not attempted to link Machiavellianism to whistle-blowing intentions with existing theory. Gaining a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms through which Machiavellianism affects whistle-blowing is important as it will provide organizations with information regarding how to better influence or incentivize certain individuals to disclose wrongdoing. As such, in our first contribution we rely upon the Model of Discretionary Reporting to gain a better understanding of how Machiavellianism affects whistle-blower behavior. As proposed by Schultz et al. (1993), the Model of Discretionary Reporting posits that the decision to report a questionable act is influenced by three primary factors: the perceived personal responsibility to report, the perceived personal costs of reporting, and the perceived seriousness of the act in question. We investigate whether these factors mediate the relationship between Machiavellianism and whistle-blower behavior.

Second, we focus on Machiavellianism within the whistle-blower context because prior research offers little guidance on how to incentivize or increase the ethical behavior of high Machs. In addition, given that we expect high Machs will be less likely to report issues of corporate malfeasance, it is particularly important to understand how to increase whistle-blower behavior for high Machs. Prior research indicates that one way to influence ethical behavior is through ethics training (Gautschi and Jones 1998; Hiltebeitel and Jones 1992; Jukiewicz et al. 2004). Thus, in theory, it may seem reasonable to assume that ethics training could increase whistle-blowing intentions for high Machs; however, prior research indicates that the effect of ethics training on ethical judgments and behaviors is oftentimes limited (Ritter 2006; Duizend and McCann 1998) or even non-existent in some settings (Peppas and Diskin 2000). More importantly, prior research indicates that ethics training can have a counterproductive effect on ethical judgments of high Machs (Bloodgood et al. 2010). Specifically, Bloodgood et al. (2010) find that high Machs who receive ethics training are more likely to find cheating acceptable as compared to high Machs who do not receive ethics training, suggesting that ethics training is ineffective for high Machs.

Given that ethics training will likely be ineffective (or even counter-effective) at increasing whistle-blowing intentions of high Machs, we examine whether an alternative lever—namely an organization’s ethical environment—can effectively encourage high Machs to disclose wrongdoing. Specifically, we argue that organizations can help facilitate the disclosure of corporate wrongdoing by fostering environments in which organizational norms, practices, and reward systems are aligned with ethical behavior. We expect that an organization’s ethical environment will increase whistle-blowing intentions for both high and low Machs. More importantly, we expect that a strong ethical environment will be incrementally important for high Machs, because a strong ethical environment will help high Machs (who are highly self-interested) to recognize that it is in their self-interest to report wrongdoing.

Our findings, in general, support our expectations. In total, this paper makes two distinct contributions. First, our findings shed light on how Machiavellianism affects whistle-blower behavior. Specifically, we find that Machiavellianism is negatively associated with perceived seriousness, benefits, and responsibility. Further, Machiavellianism has an indirect effect on whistle-blowing intentions through perceived benefits and perceived responsibility. This finding suggests that organizations may need to focus on increasing the perceived benefits and responsibility of high Machs in order to facilitate the disclosure of wrongdoing. In our second contribution, we find that the negative relationship between Machiavellianism and whistle-blowing intentions is less pronounced when the organization’s ethical environment is strong. Stated alternatively, we find that a strong ethical environment, relative to a weak ethical environment, has a more pronounced effect on whistle-blowing intentions for individuals who are higher in Machiavellianism. This finding indicates that providing employees with a strong ethical environment is incrementally more important for high Machs who are faced with a decision to report wrongdoing. Because prior research offers limited insight regarding how to increase the ethical behavior of high Machs, this finding is particularly important as it provides organizations with an alternative mechanism (aside from ethics training) to influence the ethical behavior of high Machs. In broad terms, this study extends our understanding of whistle-blower behavior by taking an in-depth look at Machiavellianism and examining the joint effects of Machiavellianism and ethical environment on the disclosure of corporate violations. We further outline our research implications in the conclusion.

The remainder of the paper is organized as follows. The following section summarizes relevant prior research and then develops the hypotheses. Subsequent sections present the research methodology and the results. The final section concludes by summarizing the results and offering recommendations for future research.

Hypothesis Development

Whistle-Blower Research

Whistle-blowing is commonly defined as “the disclosure by organization members (former or current) of illegal, immoral, or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or organizations that may be able to effect action” (Near and Miceli 1985, p. 4). Sherron Watkins and Cynthia Cooper received Time magazine’s 2002 “Persons of the Year” award for blowing the whistle on two of the largest examples of corporate fraud in U.S. history at Enron and Worldcom, respectively (Lacayo and Ripley 2002). Sherron Watkins sent a letter to ex-Enron chairman Kenneth Lay disclosing the widespread use of improper accounting methods; likewise, Cynthia Cooper informed Worldcom’s board of directors that the company failed to disclose $3.8 billion in losses. In both of these examples, the individual whistle-blowers disclosed illegitimate practices that harmed stakeholders outside of the corporation (e.g., investors, creditors, etc.); however, other common examples of whistle-blowing involve employees who are personally affected by specific issues of corporate wrongdoing. For example, victims of sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and gender discrimination are typically responsible for reporting improper behaviors that they experience within the corporate organizational structure (e.g., Bergman et al. 2002). Therefore, whistle-blowing can involve cases in which both stakeholders outside the corporate structure (e.g., investors, creditors, etc.) and stakeholders within the corporate structure (e.g., employees, managers, etc.) are directly affected by corporate wrongdoing.

While an exhaustive review of the prior whistle-blower research is beyond the scope of this study, we provide a brief background of several prior whistle-blower studies. Several seminal whistle-blower studies provided conceptual frameworks to explain whistle-blower behavior (e.g., Miceli and Near 1985; Near and Miceli 1985). More recently, whistle-blower research has relied upon the Model of Discretionary Reporting (e.g., Schultz et al. 1993; Kaplan and Whitecotton 2001; Ayers and Kaplan 2005; Curtis 2006) and Ajzen’s (1991) Theory of Planned Behavior (e.g., Park and Blenkinsopp 2009; Randall and Gibson 1991; Ellis and Arieli 1999) to predict whistle-blowing intentions.

In addition, prior research has examined the effect of a large number of individual characteristics on whistle-blowing, such as age (Mesmer-Magnus and Viswesvaran 2005), gender (Sims and Keenan 1998), job position (Mesmer-Magnus and Viswesvaran 2005), culture (Tavakoli et al. 2003; Park et al. 2005), locus of control (Chiu 2003), and self-efficacy (MacNab and Worthley 2008). Other whistle-blower research has examined the effect of contextual variables, such as organizational justice (Seifert et al. 2010), mood (Curtis 2006), supervisor support and policies (Sims and Keenan 1998), organizational size (Barnett 1992), wrongdoing attributes (Robinson et al. 2012), and moral intensity (Taylor and Curtis 2010). We extend this line of research by taking an in-depth look at the effect of Machiavellianism on whistle-blower behavior and examining the joint effects of Machiavellianism and ethical environment on whistle-blowing intentions.

Whistle-Blowing and Machiavellianism

Prior research that examines the impact of an individual’s ethical disposition on whistle-blowing uses either the Defining Issues Test (DIT) or the Ethics Position Questionnaire (EPQ). Research that uses the DIT finds that individuals with higher levels of moral reasoning are more likely to report questionable or illegal activities (Brabeck 1984; Arnold and Ponemon 1991). Research that uses the EPQ finds that individuals who are more predisposed to a relativistic orientation are less likely to blow the whistle (Barnett et al. 1996), while individuals who are more idealistic are more likely to report illegal activities (Barnett et al. 1996; Chiu and Erdener 2003). We extend this line of research by using another measure of an individual’s ethical ideology, the Mach-IV scale, to assess the effect of Machiavellianism on whistle-blowing.

Machiavellianism has been studied in a large number of contexts, including accounting (Ghosh and Crain 1996; Ghosh 2000; Wakefield 2008), business ethics (Winter et al. 2004; Ricks and Fraedrich 1999), and social psychology (Shepperd and Socherman 1997). Developed to reflect the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, a sixteenth century political philosopher, the Mach-IV personality scale assesses the extent to which an individual is manipulative, deceptive, and self-seeking (Christie and Geis 1970). In general, individuals high in Machiavellianism (i.e., high Machs) are more likely to ignore ethical norms (Wrightsman 1991) when confronted with moral issues. For example, high Machs, relative to low Machs, are more likely to engage in counterproductive work behaviors (Dahling et al. 2009), to display general unethical behaviors (Tang and Liu 2012), and to steal, cheat, and lie (Fehr et al. 1992; Flynn et al. 1987; Fletcher 1990). Furthermore, high Machs are more accepting of unethical behavior, such as questionable consumer practices, theft, and cheating (Vitell et al. 1991; Granitz 2003).

Another important characteristic of high Machs is that they tend to make ethical decisions based primarily on self-interest (McLaughlin 1970; Christie and Geis 1970). High Machs are primarily motivated by maximizing economic gain with little concern for others (Dahling et al. 2009; Gunnthorsdottir et al. 2002). Therefore, self-interest, rather than ethical norms, is another important factor for high Machs when making ethical decisions.

We expect Machiavellianism to be negatively related to whistle-blowing intentions for two reasons. First, because high Machs are more relativistic than low Machs (Wakefield 2008), they tend to judge wrongdoing less severely (e.g., Ghosh and Crain 1996); therefore, we expect high Machs to perceive wrongdoing as less serious, which, in turn, will result in lower whistle-blowing intentions. Second, we also expect Machiavellianism to be negatively related to whistle-blowing intentions because high Machs tend to rely upon self-interest, rather than universal moral rules, when making ethical decisions. To understand this expectation, it is important to note that negative outcomes (e.g., retaliation, demotion, etc.) are highly salient in the decision to report wrongdoing (Bedard et al. 2008; Rothschild and Miethe 1999; Ponemon 1994). For instance, Ponemon (1994, p. 123) notes that “the nature and extent of the retaliations or sanctions imposed by management or co-workers against the whistle-blower is perhaps the most significant determinant to the prospective whistle-blower’s decision in the communication of organizational wrongdoing.” More specifically, retaliation oftentimes leads to severely adverse professional, physical, and emotional consequences (Jos et al. 1989; Rothschild and Miethe 1999). Thus, because high Machs use self-interest to guide their decisions, we expect that the salience of potential negative outcomes will make high Machs less likely to report wrongdoing, which leads to the following prediction:

H1

Machiavellianism will be negatively related to whistle-blowing intentions.

The Indirect Effect of Machiavellianism on Whistle-Blowing

Hypothesis 1 predicts that Machiavellianism will influence the decision to report wrongdoing. To gain a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms that influence this relationship, however, we also examine several factors that are likely to mediate the effect of Machiavellianism on whistle-blowing. To identify the mechanisms through which Machiavellianism influences whistle-blowing, we rely upon the Model of Discretionary Reporting, a whistle-blower model proposed by Schultz et al. (1993). By studying these mediating variables, our intention is to extend knowledge of the processes through which an individual’s ethical disposition influences whistle-blower behavior.

Adapted from Graham’s (1986) model for principled organizational dissent, the Model of Discretionary Reporting posits that the reporting of questionable or illegal acts is influenced by three primary factors: the perceived personal responsibility to report, the perceived personal costs of reporting, and the perceived seriousness of the act in question (Schultz et al. 1993). The perceived personal responsibility to report relates to an individual’s perception of duty or responsibility to report a given issue. This perception of duty can arise from an individual’s job description, or it can be formed from a personal sense of social duty. Individuals who perceive greater levels of personal responsibility are more likely to report wrongdoing (Schultz et al. 1993). Perceived personal costs refer to the perceived harm or discomfort that could result from reporting wrongdoing. Research indicates that retaliation or threats of retaliation impede decisions to report wrongdoing (Bedard et al. 2008; Rothschild and Miethe 1999; Ponemon 1994; Jos et al. 1989); thus, perceived personal costs are negatively associated with whistle-blowing (Schultz et al. 1993). The perceived seriousness of the act relates to an individual’s assessment as to the gravity of the wrongdoing in question and is related to characteristics of the situation such as the magnitude of the potential harm and the frequency with which the wrongdoing occurs. Consequently, an individual’s assessment of seriousness is positively related to whistle-blowing (Schultz et al. 1993).

It is important to note that the factors included in the Model of Discretionary Reporting are similar to perceived moral intensity (Jones 1991). Perceived moral intensity is composed of the following six factors: (1) magnitude of consequences, (2) social consensus, (3) probability of effect, (4) temporal immediacy, (5) concentration of effect, and (6) proximity. Magnitude of consequences refers to the sum of the harms (or benefits) related to a particular decision. For example, “an act that causes the death of a human being is of greater magnitude of consequence than an act that causes a person to suffer a minor injury” (Jones 1991, p. 375). Social consensus is defined as “the degree of social agreement that a proposed act is evil (or good)” (Jones 1991, p. 375). If there is a high degree of perceived social consensus that an action is wrong, the decision-maker will face less ambiguity in reaching an ethical decision. Probability of effect is the likelihood that an action will both occur and result in harm (or benefit). For instance, “selling a gun to a known robber has greater probability of harm than selling a gun to a law-abiding citizen” (Jones 1991, p. 375). Temporal immediacy is the length of time that separates an action and the eventual consequences of the particular action. Concentration of effect is “an inverse function of the number of people affected by an act of given magnitude” (Jones 1991, p. 377). Finally, proximity is defined as the “feeling of nearness (social, cultural, psychological, or physical) that the moral agent has for victims (beneficiaries) of the evil (beneficial) act in question” (Jones 1991, p. 376). Given the nature of perceived moral intensity, it is not surprising that prior research finds that perceived moral intensity is positively associated with whistle-blowing intentions (Taylor and Curtis 2010).

Prior whistle-blower research that uses the Model of Discretionary Reporting generally reports consistent results. Schultz et al. (1993) find that, overall, the likelihood of reporting questionable acts is influenced by all three variables—perceived responsibility, perceived costs, and perceived seriousness—across a number of business scenarios. Similarly, Kaplan and Whitecotton (2001) report that perceived costs and perceived responsibility affect auditor intentions to report a co-worker who violates an AICPA ethics ruling. Likewise, Ayers and Kaplan (2005) find that perceived seriousness, perceived responsibility, and perceived costs affect IT professionals’ intentions to report wrongdoing committed by an outside IT firm.

Of particular importance to this study, Curtis (2006) uses the Model of Discretionary Reporting to examine the factors that mediate the relationship between mood and whistle-blowing intentions. More specifically, Curtis (2006) examines the effect of an unsatisfactory midterm exam score on audit students’ likelihood to report an issue of wrongdoing in an audit context. Curtis (2006) finds that perceived seriousness and perceived responsibility fully mediate the relationship between mood and whistle-blowing intentions; however, mood was not significantly associated with perceived costs. In a similar fashion to Curtis (2006), we examine the factors that mediate the relationship between Machiavellianism and whistle-blowing intentions.

We expect that perceived responsibility, perceived costs/benefits, and perceived seriousness will mediate the relationship between Machiavellianism and whistle-blowing.1 As previously discussed, high Machs are more accepting of unethical behavior; further, given that high Machs do not adhere to universal moral laws and are more relativistic by nature (Wakefield 2008), we expect high Machs to judge wrongdoing less severely, thus leading to lower levels of perceived seriousness and perceived responsibility. Finally, given that prior research indicates that the decision to report wrongdoing is dependent upon a cost-benefit analysis (Dozier and Miceli 1985; Henik 2008; Schultz et al. 1993) and given that H1 predicts that Machiavellianism will be negatively related to whistle-blowing intentions, we expect that Machiavellianism will be positively related to perceived costs and negatively related to perceived benefits. Because we expect that these factors (i.e., perceived seriousness, responsibility, and costs/benefits) are responsible for the relationship between Machiavellianism and whistle-blowing, we predict the following:

H2

Perceived responsibility, perceived costs/benefits, and perceived seriousness will mediate the relationship between Machiavellianism and whistle-blowing intentions.

Whistle-Blowing and Ethical Environment

Given that we expect Machiavellianism to be negatively related to whistle-blowing intentions, it is particularly important to understand how to increase whistle-blowing intentions of high Machs. Prior research, however, offers limited insight on how to increase the ethical judgments and behaviors of high Machs. For example, even though ethics training is used as a mechanism by which organizations can increase ethical behavior, existing research indicates that ethics training can have counterproductive effects on the ethical judgments of high Machs (Bloodgood et al. 2010). Specifically, Bloodgood et al. (2010) find that while ethics training has a positive effect on ethical judgments for low Machs, ethics training has a small negative effect on the ethical judgments of high Machs. To explain this interaction effect, Bloodgood et al. (2010) note that low Machs are more likely to internalize ethical training messages which propose that purely self-interested actions that are potentially harmful to others are wrong. However, given that high Machs are highly self-interested by nature, similar messages are not effective for high Machs. Therefore, we argue that in order to influence high Machs to report wrongdoing, organizations need to utilize methods that allow high Machs to recognize that it is in their best interest to disclose wrongdoing, rather than trying to convince high Machs that purely self-interested behaviors can be wrong. In this regard, we focus on an organization’s ethical environment.

Arnold et al. (1999, 2000) develop a framework indicating that organizations can foster ethical environments that eventually lead to more ethical behavior. Using Arnold et al. (1999, 2000) as theoretical support, Booth and Schulz (2004) identify six factors that comprise an organization’s ethical environment. The first three factors (mission and values, leadership and management values, and peer group influence) represent the social norms in the work environment. Organizations with well-defined missions and values can influence and guide ethical decision making (Ford and Richardson 1994; Kitson and Campbell 1996). Furthermore, the tone at the top (i.e., leadership and management values) influences ethical behavior as employees tend to follow organizational leadership (Hegarty and Sims 1979). Likewise, prior research indicates that peer group influence affects ethical behavior (Nichols and Day 1982).

The next two ethical environment factors (procedures, rules, and codes of conduct, and ethics training) represent the social practices of an organization. Organizational practices such as Codes of Ethics and ethics training reinforce the ethical norms of a work environment and encourage ethical decision making (Ford and Richardson 1994). Finally, the last ethical environment factor, rewards and sanctions, reflects the importance of reward structures in endorsing ethical behavior. Performance evaluation systems that explicitly reward individuals for ethical behavior and punish individuals for violations of ethical standards are critical in the promotion of organizational ethical behavior (Ford and Richardson 1994; Chonko and Hunt 1985).

Prior research finds that an organization’s ethical environment can influence ethical behavior across various contextual settings. For example, Booth and Schulz (2004) find that a strong ethical environment can help reduce the tendency of managers to behave opportunistically when agency problems exist. Other research finds that a firm’s ethical environment can influence the ethical decision making of auditors and tax professionals (Ponemon 1992; Windsor and Ashkanasy 1995; Sweeney et al. 2010; Bobek and Radtke 2007). Further, even though prior research has not explicitly examined the effect of an organization’s ethical environment on whistle-blowing, this research finds that several of the components of an organization’s ethical environment, such as top management support and formal whistle-blower policies (Sims and Keenan 1998; Mesmer-Magnus and Viswesvaran 2005), promote whistle-blowing. Therefore, using this prior research as theoretical support, we predict that a strong ethical environment, relative to a weak ethical environment, will increase whistle-blowing intentions.

H3

As compared to a weak ethical environment, a strong ethical environment will increase whistle-blowing intentions.

Interaction of Machiavellianism and Ethical Environment

More importantly, we also expect that the strength of an organization’s ethical environment will moderate the effect of Machiavellianism on whistle-blowing intentions. Specifically, we expect that the negative relationship between Machiavellianism and whistle-blowing intentions will be less pronounced when a strong ethical environment is present. Stated another way, a strong ethical environment will have an incrementally greater effect on increasing the whistle-blowing intentions of high Machs, compared to low Machs. Given that prior research offers limited insight on how to increase whistle-blowing for high Machs, this prediction is important as it would indicate that not only can a strong ethical environment increase high Machs’ whistle-blowing intentions, but a strong ethical environment is incrementally more important for high Machs.

There are several reasons to expect Machiavellianism to interact with an organization’s ethical environment. First, as indicated by Booth and Schulz (2004, p. 478), more “ethical groups may induce individuals with low moral reasoning to act ethically.” Thus, an organization that has a strong ethical environment will likely exert peer group influence on those who are higher in Machiavellianism, thereby increasing the disclosure of wrongdoing by high Machs.

Second, organizations with strong ethical environments have systems in place to reward ethical behavior and punish unethical behavior (Booth and Schulz 2004). Consequently, because high Machs are highly self-interested and concerned with the potential economic outcomes of their decisions, we expect that rewards and sanctions will have a more pronounced effect on whistle-blowing intentions for high Machs. In other words, we expect that high Machs will be more influenced by rewards and sanctions because they tend to be motivated by economic opportunism (Dahling et al. 2009), while low Machs tend to be guided by universal moral rules. Whereas ethics training is ineffective at increasing the ethical behavior of high Machs (e.g., Bloodgood et al. 2010), we expect that the rewards and sanctions of a strong ethical environment will help high Machs recognize that it is in their best interest to report wrongdoing, thereby leading to higher whistle-blowing intentions. Finally, given that we expect that high Machs will be less likely to report wrongdoing overall (i.e., Hypothesis 1), this lower baseline allows for larger increases in whistle-blowing intentions when a strong ethical environment is present, thereby providing an additional reason to expect that a strong ethical environment will have a greater effect on the whistle-blowing intentions of high Machs. Taken together, this discussion leads to the following hypothesis:

H4

The negative relationship between Machiavellianism and whistle-blowing intentions will be moderated by an organization’s ethical environment.

Research Methodology

Participants

In this study, MBA students at two large southeastern universities served as proxies for employees faced with a decision to report corporate wrongdoing. A total of 116 MBA students participated in the experiment. The participants were recruited during a regularly scheduled MBA class. To encourage participation, participants were offered points toward their semester grade.2 Males comprised 64 % (n = 74) of the sample and females made up 36 % (n = 42) of the sample. The average age of the participants was 26.22 years with a range from 22 to 52 years. On average, the participants had 3.66 years of professional work experience. Given the age and work experience levels, these participants should be adequate proxies for corporate employees confronted with a decision to report an ethical issue.3

Task and Procedures

To test our hypotheses, this study uses one whistle-blower scenario (see Appendix A) taken from Schultz et al. (1993). We use a scenario from Schultz et al. (1993) because they used great care to design realistic whistle-blower scenarios. Further, we felt that it was important to use a scenario in which not everyone would be willing to report the issue of wrongdoing (i.e., we wanted to use a scenario with relatively low whistle-blowing intentions). For example, if we chose a scenario in which most individuals would report wrongdoing, then the relative strength of an organization’s ethical environment would be less important (i.e., participants would report wrongdoing regardless of the ethical environment). In essence, the scenario instructed participants to assume the role of a corporate employee who observes a violation of corporate policy and then must decide whether or not to report the issue to management.

Given that we use the same method (i.e., self reported data) to assess our measures, a potential limitation of our results is common method bias (i.e., variance attributable to the measurement method instead of the variables of interest (Podsakoff et al. 2003)). To mitigate the extent to which common method bias is problematic in our data, we implemented the following procedures into our survey: (1) we instructed participants that all responses would be kept anonymous and that there were no right or wrong answers, and (2) we used previously validated scales and questions. To assess common method bias, we used Harman’s single factor test, which is a commonly used method to diagnose the extent to which common method bias is problematic (e.g., Grafton et al. 2010; Burney et al. 2009). According to Harmon’s single factor test, common method bias is problematic if an exploratory factor analysis indicates that either (1) the data can be represented by a single factor, or (2) a single factor accounts for the majority (i.e., >50 %) of the covariance among the measures. The results from Harman’s single factor test indicate that there are three factors with eigenvalues >1.0 and the first factor explains 27.6 % of the total variance. Taken together, these results suggest that common method bias is not problematic in this study. In the following subsections, we discuss each of the dependent and independent measures.

Dependent Variable

Consistent with prior whistle-blower research (Kaplan and Whitecotton 2001; Curtis 2006), we used two separate dependent variables. First, participants assessed the likelihood that they would report the issue in the case on a seven-point Likert scale with 1 = unlikely and 7 = likely. Specifically, whistle-blowing intentions are measured by the following question: “Given the information presented above, what is the likelihood that you would report the questionable act to the next higher level of management in this case?” We refer to this measure as first person whistle-blowing intentions. The mean response of 5.04 indicates that, overall, participants were moderately likely to report the questionable act in the case.

Oftentimes, prior whistle-blower research only uses the dependent variable framed from the first person response perspective (e.g., MacNab and Worthley 2008; Liyanarachchi and Newdick 2009); however, some studies have also used the third person response perspective in order to mitigate the social desirability response bias (e.g., Schultz et al. 1993; Curtis 2006). Therefore, our second dependent variable is framed in the third person response perspective, as follows: “Most of the other employees at Hours Inc. would report the questionable act.” (1 = strongly disagree and 7 = strongly agree). We refer to this measure as third person whistle-blowing intentions. The mean response of 3.83 indicates that, overall, participants perceived that most others would not likely report the questionable act in the case.

Independent Variables

Our ethical environment manipulation was adapted from the ethical environment manipulation used by Booth and Schulz (2004). In the strong (weak) ethical environment manipulation, the company’s social norms (i.e., mission and values, tone at the top, and peer group influence), social practices (i.e., ethics training and codes of ethics), and outcomes (i.e., rewards and sanctions) reflect an organizational environment in which ethical behavior is (not) strongly encouraged (see Appendix B).

Consistent with Booth and Schulz (2004), our strong and weak ethical environment manipulations are not perfectly symmetric in the sense that a similar amount or type of information is provided in each manipulation.4 For example, Booth and Schulz (2004) provide participants with a substantial amount of information regarding the strong ethical environment manipulations, but provide participants with no information regarding the weak ethical environment manipulation. Our strong ethical environment manipulation closely resembles the manipulation used by Booth and Schulz (2004). However, our weak ethical environment manipulation differs from the one used by Booth and Schulz (2004), because our weak ethical environment manipulation provides participants with a significant amount of information regarding the company’s ethical environment in order to increase the salience of the manipulation. For example, our weak ethical environment manipulation informs participants that following the Code of Ethics has never been emphasized within the company. Furthermore, participants are told that the company does not provide ethics training to its employees and does not include an assessment of ethical behavior in its performance evaluation system.

To ensure that our ethical environment manipulation was realistic and understandable, we pilot tested our instrument on several graduate students and working professionals. As a manipulation check for the ethical environment treatments, participants responded to the following statement on a seven-point Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree): “The company in my scenario was greatly concerned with ethical behavior.”5 Participants’ responses were significantly higher (p < 0.001) in the strong ethical environment treatment (mean = 5.68) than the weak ethical environment treatment (mean = 3.24), indicating an effective manipulation.

To measure an individual’s Machiavellianism, we rely upon the Mach-IV scale (Christie and Geis 1970). The Mach-IV scale includes 20 items, ten of which are reverse coded (see Appendix C). We measured Machiavellianism as the average of the twenty items. Cronbach’s coefficient alpha of Machiavellianism (0.74) in this study exceeds the 0.5 cut-off recommended by Fornell and Larcker (1981) and compares favorably with the Cronbach’s coefficient alpha score of 0.65 reported by Wakefield (2008). We note that the Machiavellianism scores ranged from 1.9 to 5.2 with a mean value of 3.64.

Finally, to assess the indirect effects of ethical environment and Machiavellianism (i.e., Hypothesis 2), we also included the Model of Discretionary Reporting factors (i.e., perceived seriousness, perceived costs/benefits, perceived responsibility). Specifically, participants responded to the following four questions on a seven-point Likert scale (1 = very low and 7 = very high): (1) Please assess the seriousness (i.e., the amount of harm done) of the questionable act in this scenario (mean = 4.68); (2) Please assess the personal costs (i.e., trouble, risk, discomfort) to you if you chose to inform the next higher level of management in this case (mean = 4.99); (3) Please assess the personal responsibility of an employee of Hours Inc. (i.e., duty or obligation) to report the questionable act to the next higher level of management in this case (mean = 5.63); and (4) Please assess the benefits of reporting the questionable act to the next higher level of management (mean = 4.15). We find that the mean values for perceived seriousness, costs, and responsibility are each significantly greatly than the median scale value of four (p < 0.001). Perceived benefits, however, is not significantly greater than the median scale value.

Results

Table 1 reports the descriptive statistics and correlations for all of the variables in this study. We note that gender is significantly correlated with the dependent variable first person whistle-blowing intentions (p < 0.05), indicating that females reported higher whistle-blowing intentions. Furthermore, females reported greater levels of perceived costs, perceived benefits, and perceived seriousness. The fact that females reported higher whistle-blowing intentions is consistent with prior research indicating that, in general, females tend to engage in more ethical behavior than males (for a review, see O’Fallon and Butterfield 2005).
Table 1

Descriptive Statistics with Pearson product correlations (and significance levels)

Variables

Mean (SD)

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

First person whistle-blowing intentions (1)

5.04 (1.62)

         

Third person whistle-blowing intentions (2)

3.83 (1.59)

0.598 (<.001)

        

Ethical environment (3)a

0.50 (0.50)

0.432 (<0.001)

0.380 (<0.001)

       

Machiavellianism (4)

3.64 (0.63)

−0.272 (0.003)

−0.172 (0.064)

0.131 (0.162)

      

Costs (5)

4.99 (1.47)

−0.106 (0.258)

−0.213 (0.022)

−0.136 (0.146)

−0.005 (0.955)

     

Benefits (6)

4.15 (1.66)

0.511 (<0.001)

0.434 (<0.001)

0.235 (0.011)

−0.182 (0.051)

−0.060 (0.520)

    

Seriousness (7)

4.69 (1.42)

0.467 (<0.001)

0.199 (0.032)

0.110 (0.240)

−0.332 (<0.001)

0.154 (0.100)

0.290 (0.002)

   

Responsibility (8)

5.63 (1.41)

0.652 (<0.001)

0.491 (<0.001)

0.302 (<0.001)

−0.260 (0.005)

−0.027 (0.774)

0.341 (<0.001)

0.531 (<0.001)

  

Age (9)

26.22 (4.70)

0.114 (0.223)

−0.081 (0.388)

−0.076 (0.420)

−0.136 (0.144)

0.066 (0.482)

−0.101 (0.280)

0.141 (0.132)

0.106 (0.259)

 

Gender (10) b

 

0.224 (0.016)

0.127 (0.174)

0.072 (0.444)

−0.160 (0.086)

0.250 (0.007)

0.183 (0.049)

0.242 (0.009)

0.148 (0.112)

0.015 (0.872)

aA total of 116 MBAs participated in our study. Fifty-eight MBAs were assigned to the weak ethical environment treatment, and 58 MBAs were assigned to the strong ethical environment treatment

bMales comprised 64 % (n = 74) of the sample and females comprised 36 % (n = 42) of the sample

First person whistle-blowing intentions: Given the information presented above, what is the likelihood that you would report the questionable act to the next higher level of management? (1 = unlikely, 7 = likely)

Third person whistle-blowing intentions: Most of the other employees at Hours Inc. would report the questionable act (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree)

Ethical environment is coded such that 1 = strong ethical environment and 0 = weak ethical environment

Machiavellianism equals the summation of the Machiavellian questions shown in Appendix C

Costs: Please assess the personal costs (i.e., trouble, risk, discomfort) to you if you chose to inform the next higher level of management in this case (1 = very low, 7 = very high)

Benefits: Please assess the benefits of reporting the questionable act to the next higher level of management (1 = very low, 7 = very high)

Seriousness: Please assess the seriousness (i.e., the amount of harm done) of the questionable act in this scenario (1 = very low, 7 = very high)

Responsibility: Please assess the personal responsibility of an employee of Hours Inc. (i.e., duty or obligation) to report the questionable act to the next higher level of management in this case (1 = very low, 7 = very high)

Gender is coded such that 1 = female and 0 = male

Consistent with other studies that examine the interactive properties of Machiavellianism (e.g., Bloodgood et al. 2010), we use hierarchical ordinary least squares regression analysis to test Hypotheses 1, 3, and 4 (Hypothesis 2 is examined later). Table 2 reports the hierarchical regression results with the dependent variable measured in the first person response perspective.6 Step one of the hierarchical regression analysis includes the predictor and control variables. Regarding control variables, we control for age, gender, and the respective university of the participants. Step two of the analysis includes the hypothesized interaction.
Table 2

Hierarchical regression results—effect of ethical environment and ethical disposition on whistle-blowing intentions

Dependent variable is whistle-blowing intentions

 

Step 1

Step 2

Estimate (t-stat)

Estimate (t-stat)

Predictor variables

 Ethical environment

0.47 (5.87)***

−0.88 (−1.90)

 Machiavellianism

−0.30 (−3.65)***

−0.56 (−4.71)***

 Age

0.11 (1.35)

0.10 (1.35)

 Gender

0.14 (1.77)

0.18 (2.30)*

 University

0.01 (0.10)

0.04 (0.48)

Interaction

 Ethical environment × Machiavellianism

 

1.42 (2.96) **

Model F value

10.69***

10.99***

Adjusted R 2

0.30

0.35

Change in adjusted R 2

 

0.05**

*** p < 0.001, ** p < 0.01, * p < 0.05 (all p values are two-tailed)

Standardized regression estimates are reported

See Table 1 for variable descriptions

Hypothesis 1 predicts that Machiavellianism will be negatively related to whistle-blowing intentions. As shown in Table 1, Machiavellianism is negatively related to whistle-blowing intentions (p < 0.001), thus supporting Hypothesis 1. Hypothesis 3 predicts that a strong ethical environment will increase whistle-blowing intentions. As expected, the effect of ethical environment is positively related to whistle-blowing intentions (p < 0.001), indicating that a strong ethical environment increases whistle-blowing intentions. More importantly, Hypothesis 4 predicts that the negative relationship between Machiavellianism and whistle-blowing intentions will be moderated by an organization’s ethical environment. As shown in step two of Table 2, the interaction between ethical environment and Machiavellianism is positive and significant, indicating that a strong ethical environment has a greater impact on individuals who are higher in Machiavellianism. Stated in another way, the negative relationship between Machiavellianism and whistle-blowing intentions is less pronounced when the ethical environment is strong. Therefore, Hypothesis 4 is also supported.

A graphical depiction of the interaction of ethical environment and Machiavellianism is shown in Fig. 1. In Fig. 1, median splits are used to categorize the Machiavellianism variable. As depicted by Fig. 1, a strong ethical environment, relative to a weak ethical environment, increases whistle-blowing intentions of high Machs incrementally more than low Machs. Further, given that the gap between high Machs and low Machs is smaller when the ethical environment is strong, our results indicate the negative relationship between Machiavellianism and whistle-blowing intentions is less pronounced when the ethical environment is strong. Overall, our results indicate that an organization’s ethical environment and an individual’s ethical disposition can, in fact, interact with each other such that high Machs are incrementally affected by a strong ethical environment.
Fig. 1

Interaction between ethical environment and Machiavellianism [Machiavellianism classification (high or low) using a median split]. Machiavellianism level (high or low) is coded such that high (low) Machs have Machiavellian scores greater (less) than median

The analysis depicted in Fig. 1 uses a median split to classify high and low Machs. As an alternative method to classify high Machs, Christie and Geis (1970) recommend summing all of the items in the Machiavellianism scale and adding a constant of 20 and then classifying scores above 100 as high Machs. Therefore, given that prior research indicates that high Machs tend to have Machiavellian scores greater than 100 (Hunt and Chonko 1984; Christie and Geis 1970; Wakefield 2008), we classify participants with Machiavellian scores above 100 as high Machs. With this new Machiavellian classification, 36 (80) individuals were classified as high (low) Machs. For robustness, we reran our analyses in Table 2 using this alternative measure of high and low Machs and find consistent results.

Hypothesis 2 predicts that perceived responsibility, perceived costs/benefits, and perceived seriousness will mediate the relationship between Machiavellianism and whistle-blowing intentions. When assessing simple mediation models (i.e., one mediator variable), prior research tends to use the four-step mediation analysis as outlined by Baron and Kenny (1986) (Preacher and Hayes 2008; Zhao et al. 2010). However, given that this study uses a multiple mediation model (i.e., multiple mediators), we follow the methodology as outlined by Preacher and Hayes (2008). To remain consistent with the Baron and Kenny (1986) four-step mediation analysis, however, we also present our results in the same four-step sequence. Further, given that Curtis (2006) uses a similar multiple mediation model in which perceived responsibility, perceived costs, and perceived seriousness serve as mediator variables, we also rely upon the methodology used by Curtis (2006) in our mediation analysis.

Table 3 presents all four steps of the mediation analysis.7 For mediation to occur, all four steps must be satisfied. In step one, the predictor variable (i.e., Machiavellianism) must be significantly related to the mediator variable(s) (i.e., perceived responsibility, perceived costs/benefits, and perceived seriousness). Panel A shows that individuals who are higher in Machiavellianism perceive lower benefits from whistle-blowing; lower seriousness with regards to the wrongdoing in question; and lower personal responsibility to report the wrongdoing. Therefore, the first condition for mediation is satisfied given that Machiavellianism affects several of the mediator variables.8
Table 3

Mediation analysis

Panel A: Step 1 of the mediation analysis (the predictor variables must affect the mediator variables)

 

Mediator variables

Costs

Estimate (t-stat)

Benefits

Estimate (t-stat)

Seriousness

Estimate (t-stat)

Responsibility

Estimate (t-stat)

Predictor variables

 Machiavellianism

−0.01 (−0.06)

−0.48 (−1.98)*

−0.74 (−3.76)***

−0.58 (−2.87)***

Adjusted R 2

0.00

0.03

0.10

0.06

Panel B: Step 2 of the mediation analysis (the predictor variables must affect the dependent variable)

 

Dependent variable: first person whistle-blowing intentions

Estimate (t-stat)

Predictor variables

 Machiavellianism

−0.70 (−3.02)***

 Adjusted R 2

0.07

Panel C: Step 3 of the mediation analysis (the mediator variables must affect the dependent variable)

 

Dependent variable: first person whistle-blowing intentions

Estimate (t-stat)

Mediator variables

 Costs

−0.11 (−1.47)

 Benefits

0.30 (4.37)***

 Seriousness

0.17 (1.85)a

 Responsibility

0.54 (5.97)***

 Adjusted R 2

0.52

Panel D: Step 4 of the mediation analysis (the effect of the predictor variables on the dependent variable must be reduced when the mediator variables are included in the analysis)

 

Dependent variable: first person whistle-blowing intentions

Estimate (t-stat)

Predictor variables

 Machiavellianism

−0.14 (−0.78)

Mediator variables

 Costs

−0.11 (−1.45)

 Benefits

0.29 (4.30)***

 Seriousness

0.15 (1.62)

 Responsibility

0.54 (5.86)***

 Adjusted R 2

0.52

aMarginally significant (p = 0.07)

*** p < 0.001, ** p < 0.01, * p < 0.05 (all p values are two-tailed). Unstandardized regression estimates are reported

In step two of the mediation analysis, the predictor variable (i.e., Machiavellianism) must be significantly associated with the dependent variable (i.e., whistle-blowing intentions). Panel B of Table 3 indicates that Machiavellianism is significantly related to whistle-blowing intentions. The third step indicates that the mediating variable(s) (i.e., perceived responsibility, perceived costs/benefits, and perceived seriousness) must affect the dependent variable (i.e., whistle-blowing intentions). Panel C shows that the perceived benefits, perceived seriousness, and perceived responsibility affect the dependent variable.

The fourth step indicates that for mediation to occur, the effect of the predictor variable (i.e., Machiavellianism) must be reduced once the mediating variables are included in the analysis. Before discussing the results, we note that there may be either full mediation or partial mediation. Full mediation exists if the relationship between the predictor variable (i.e., Machiavellianism) and the dependent variable (i.e., whistle-blowing intentions) is diminished to non-significance in the presence of the mediator variable(s). Partial mediation, in contrast, exists if the relationship between the predictor variable and the dependent variable remains significant, but decreases in the presence of the mediator variable(s) (e.g., Lopez et al. 2009). As shown in Panel D of Table 3, the effect of Machiavellianism on whistle-blowing intentions becomes non-significant once we control for the mediator variables, indicating that the Model of Discretionary Reporting factors fully mediate the relationship between Machiavellianism and whistle-blowing intentions. Figure 2 depicts the relationships among all of the variables in our analysis. A full (dashed) arrow represents a significant (non-significant) path coefficient.
Fig. 2

Overall mediation results. *** p < 0.001, ** p < 0.01, * p < 0.05. Rightwards arrow path significant; rightwards dashed arrow path not significant

Finally, following recommendations by Preacher and Hayes (2008), we also test for indirect effects using the bootstrap method with 1,000 bootstrap samples. Table 4, Panel A shows the indirect effects of Machiavellianism on whistle-blowing intentions. In total, Machiavellianism has a significant indirect effect on whistle-blowing intentions (p < 0.01). As shown in Table 4, Machiavellianism has an indirect effect through perceived responsibility (p < 0.01) and perceived benefits (p < 0.10).
Table 4

Bootstrap results for indirect effects

Indirect effects of Machiavellianism on whistle-blowing intentions through mediators

Variable

Effect

SE

Z statistic

p Value

Seriousness

−0.11

0.07

−1.52

0.13

Costs

0.001

0.02

0.06

0.96

Responsibility

−0.31

0.12

−2.60

0.01

Benefits

−0.14

0.08

−1.81

0.07

All p values are 2-tailed

Unstandardized coefficient estimates are reported

See Table 1 for variable descriptions

Additional Analysis

The previous analysis depicted in Fig. 2 does not encompass an organization’s ethical environment. As such, there are several questions that remain unanswered, including the following: (1) Does an organization’s ethical environment moderate the effect of Machiavellianism on the mediator variables, and (2) Does an organization’s ethical environment moderate the effect of the mediator variables on whistle-blowing intentions?

To investigate these research questions, Table 5 displays the interactive effects of Machiavellianism and ethical environment on the mediator variables (Panel A) and the interactive effects of the mediator variables and ethical environment on whistle-blowing intentions (Panel B). As shown in Panel A, we are unable to find evidence that an organization’s ethical environment moderates the effect of Machiavellianism on the mediator variables; however, as shown in Panel B, an organization’s ethical environment can moderate the effect of perceived responsibility on whistle-blowing intentions (p < 0.05). As depicted in Fig. 3, when individuals perceive a low level of responsibility to report wrongdoing, a strong ethical environment, relative to a weak ethical environment, significantly increases whistle-blowing intentions; however, when individuals perceive a high level of responsibility, the effect of an organization’s ethical environment is less pronounced. This result suggests that, ceteris paribus, when individuals perceive low levels of responsibility, a strong ethical environment is more important for increasing whistle-blowing intentions. Intuitively, this result is reasonable as a strong ethical environment is less important when individuals already perceive a responsibility to disclose wrongdoing.
Table 5

Additional analysis

Panel A: Interactive effects of Machiavellianism and ethical environment on mediator variables

 

Mediator variables

Costs

Estimate (t-stat)

Benefits

Estimate (t-stat)

Seriousness

Estimate (t-stat)

Responsibility

Estimate (t-stat)

Main effects

 Machiavellianism

−0.09 (−0.26)

−0.69 (−1.90)

−0.93 (−3.06)**

−0.99 (−3.42)**

 Ethical environment

−1.14 (−0.70)

0.11 (0.06)

−0.44 (−0.30)

−1.05 (−0.74)

Interaction

 Machiavellianism × ethical environment

0.20 (0.46)

0.21 (0.44)

0.24 (0.60)

0.55 (1.44)

Adjusted R 2

0.00

0.08

0.11

0.18

Panel B: Interactive effects of mediator variables and ethical environment on whistle-blowing intentions

Dependent variable: whistle-blowing intentions

 

Step 1

Estimate (t-stat)

Step 2

Estimate (t-stat)

Main effects

 Costs

−0.08 (−1.16)

−0.05 (−0.47)

 Benefits

0.27 (4.02)***

0.33 (3.48)**

 Seriousness

0.18 (2.13)*

0.18 (1.43)

 Responsibility

0.47 (5.23)***

0.64 (5.21)***

 Ethical Environment

0.71 (3.30)**

4.34 (3.79)***

Interactions

 Costs × ethical environment

 

−0.07 (−0.53)

 Benefits × ethical environment

 

−0.18 (−1.41)

 Seriousness × ethical environment

 

−0.01 (−0.07)

 Responsibility × ethical environment

 

−0.43 (−2.44)*

 Adjusted R 2

0.56

0.60

*** p < 0.001, ** p < 0.01, * p < 0.05 (all p values are two-tailed.). Unstandardized regression estimates are reported

Fig. 3

Interaction between ethical environment and perceived responsibility

Conclusion

This paper explores the joint effects of Machiavellianism and an organization’s ethical environment on whistle-blowing, thereby contributing to the whistle-blower literature in two primary ways. Our first contribution is based on an in-depth investigation of the effect of Machiavellianism on whistle-blowing. Specifically, we find that individuals who are higher in Machiavellianism perceive lower benefits, seriousness, and responsibility of reporting wrongdoing. Further, we find that Machiavellianism has an indirect effect on whistle-blowing through perceived benefits and perceived responsibility. These findings suggest that organizations may need to focus on increasing the perceived benefits and responsibility of high Machs in order to facilitate the disclosure of wrongdoing.

Our second contribution offers a mechanism by which organizations can increase whistle-blowing intentions, especially for high Machs. Specifically, we find that a strong ethical environment moderates the negative relationship between Machiavellianism and whistle-blowing intentions. In other words, while a strong ethical environment increases whistle-blowing intentions for both high and low Mach individuals, a strong ethical environment is incrementally more important for high Machs. In essence, a strong ethical environment incrementally increases high Machs’ whistle-blowing intentions because it enables high Machs (who are primarily self-interested) to recognize that it is in their self-interest to report wrongdoing.

While ethics training is a component that is included in an organization’s ethical environment, it is important to note that there are several unique characteristics within an organization’s ethical environment that can influence high Machs’ tendency to engage in self-interested behavior. For example, an organization’s ethical environment includes rewards and sanctions (e.g., performance evaluations and monetary compensation), peer group influence (e.g., co-worker influence), and leadership and management values (e.g., tone at the top). Given that recent research indicates that ethics training can actually have counterproductive effects on ethical judgments of high Machs (Bloodgood et al. 2010), our results are particularly important as they suggests that perhaps a more effective way to influence ethical judgments and behaviors of high Machs is through other components of an organization’s ethical environment.

Finally, our findings indicate that a strong ethical environment, relative to a weak ethical environment, has a pronounced effect on the disclosure of corporate violations for all participants. This finding suggests that a strong corporate ethical environment can offer organizations an important means to influence the disclosure of corporate wrongdoing for both high and low Machs. As noted by Booth and Schulz (2004, p. 485), “by focusing on creating an environment where the organization’s mission and values are built upon strong ethical values, where the leadership of the organization acts in ways to explicitly support such mission and values, as do all members of the organization, where these values as given existence in a Code of Ethics and in other relevant organizational procedures and rules, and where organizational rewards and sanctions are explicitly aligned to support ethical values and behavior, then the organization can promote greater levels of ethical decision making by all managers.”

Limitations

MBA students were used as participants in this study. Consequently, it is possible that the results would differ if business managers were used as participants. However, the possibility of a lack of external validity is mitigated by several factors. First, this study tests the effect of factors (i.e., Machiavellianism and ethical environment) which are not dependent on any particular profession. In this regard, prior research suggests that students should serve as adequate proxies (Peecher and Solomon 2001; Libby et al. 2002). Further, recent whistle-blower research also relies upon the use of business students as participants (Ayers and Kaplan 2005; Curtis 2006; Brabeck 1984; Liyanarachchi and Newdick 2009).

Another limitation of this study is that a hypothetical scenario was used. To the extent that the scenario did not integrate all potential factors that would influence an individual’s decision to report wrongdoing in reality, the results may differ from those of real life situations. However, a long list of prior whistle-blower research also utilizes hypothetical scenarios (Ayers and Kaplan 2005; Liyanarachchi and Newdick 2009; Schultz et al. 1993; Arnold and Ponemon 1991; Curtis 2006). Finally, we note that only one scenario was used in our analysis. While prior whistle-blower research has relied upon only one scenario (Curtis 2006; Arnold and Ponemon 1991; Kaplan and Whitecotton 2001), we encourage future research to assess the generalizability of our results across additional whistle-blower settings.

It is also important to note that our survey instrument was completed at a single point in time. Prior research that uses the Model of Discretionary Reporting to examine whistle-blowing intentions tends to collect data at a single point in time (e.g., Schultz et al. 1993; Kaplan and Whitecotton 2001); likewise, prior research that examines the effect of Machiavellianism on ethical judgments and behaviors also tends to collect all of the independent and dependent measures at once (e.g., Bloodgood et al. 2010; Street and Street 2006; Winter et al. 2004; Al-Rafee and Cronan 2006). To remain consistent with these prior studies, we also administered our experimental instrument at one point in time; however, we acknowledge that when data are collected simultaneously, there is the potential for self-generated validity issues and framing effects. Consequently, we encourage future research to extend our study to other contexts (as outlined below) and collect data for the dependent and independent variables at separate points in time.

Finally, we note that we did not randomize the order of the independent and dependent variables. To mitigate potential priming effects, prior research suggests randomizing the order of independent and dependent variables (Budd 1987). As such, we encourage future whistle-blower research to randomize the order of independent and dependent variables to assess the robustness of prior findings.

Suggestions for Future Research

Future research could extend this study by examining which components of an organization’s ethical environment increase whistle-blowing. For example, perhaps some components are more effective at increasing whistle-blowing intentions than others. Furthermore, perhaps some components are more important for high Machs than others. Future research could also assess whether the effect of Machiavellianism on whistle-blowing depends on the reporting channel (e.g., internal reporting channels, external reporting channels, anonymous reporting channels). Given that high Machs focus on the potential outcomes of their decisions, the reporting channel may have a greater impact on high Machs than low Machs.

In addition, while a substantial amount of whistle-blower research has examined scenarios in which an employee has the option to report wrongdoing affecting other individuals (e.g., investors, creditors, other employees), we believe that more research could investigate whistle-blower scenarios in which the potential whistle-blower is directly affected by corporate wrongdoing. In such cases, given that high Machs tend to be self-interested, it is likely that high Machs would not be incrementally affected by a strong ethical environment. In other words, in contrast to this study, we would not expect to observe a significant interaction between Machiavellianism and an organization’s ethical environment when high Machs are directly affected by corporate wrongdoing. Finally, future research could examine whether whistle-blower rewards, such as those offered by the IRS whistle-blower program, the False Claims Act whistle-blower program, or private company whistle-blower programs, are incrementally more effective at increasing whistle-blower behavior among high Machs.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    We find it interesting that while the perceived costs of whistle-blowing are included in the Model of Discretionary Reporting (Schultz et al. 1993), the perceived benefits (i.e., promotions, stopping an illegal activity, preventing harm, etc.) are not. Given that prior research indicates that the decision to report wrongdoing is based upon a costs-benefits analysis (Dozier and Miceli 1985), it seems as though the perceived benefits should also be included within the Model of Discretionary Reporting. As such, we also include a measure that assesses the perceived benefits of reporting and expect that the perceived benefits of reporting wrongdoing will be positively related to whistle-blowing intentions.

  2. 2.

    The MBA students were informed that participation was anonymous and that all responses would be kept confidential. We note that seven students chose not to complete the survey, and eight responses were removed due to incomplete data.

  3. 3.

    Recent whistle-blower studies also rely on MBA students as participants (Ayers and Kaplan 2005; Curtis 2006). The participants used in prior whistle-blower studies are similar to our participants in terms of both age and work experience. For example, the participants used in Curtis (2006) were, on average, 27-years-old and had 2 years of professional work experience; further, the participants used in Ayers and Kaplan (2005) were, on average, 28-years-old and had 31 months of professional work experience.

  4. 4.

    For our ethical environment manipulations, it was not realistic to have symmetrically designed manipulations. For example, the strong ethical environment manipulation indicates that “Hours Inc. actively and strongly supports the Industry Association stance on ethical behavior and has adopted the Industry Association Code of Ethics as its own internal code.” A symmetrically designed weak ethical environment manipulation would indicate that “Hours Inc. does not actively and strongly support the Industry Association stance on ethical behavior and has not adopted the Industry Association Code of Ethics as its own internal code.” Within pilot-tests, such a manipulation was not deemed realistic; as such, similar to Booth and Schulz (2004), we take a more nuanced approach in designing our strong and weak ethical environment manipulations.

  5. 5.

    In addition, to ensure that participants applied adequate attention to the instrument, we also included two additional questions in which we asked participants to recall several basic facts of the experimental scenario. Participants who answered either of these questions incorrectly were removed from the analysis.

  6. 6.

    In untabulated results, we find similar results when the third-person response perspective is used.

  7. 7.

    For parsimony, our mediation analysis only uses first person whistle-blowing intentions; however, results are quantitatively similar when we use third person whistle-blowing intentions as the dependent variable.

  8. 8.

    Similar to Curtis (2006), we find that the perceived costs variable is not a significant mediator in our analysis.

Notes

Acknowledgments

We appreciate helpful comments provided by Donna Bobek Schmitt, Steve Buchheit, John Masselli, Ralph Viator, and Jim Wilcox. We also appreciate helpful comments from attendees at the 2011 ABO conference.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Accountancy and FinanceClemson UniversityClemsonUSA

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