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Decreasing Unethical Decisions: The Role of Morality-Based Individual Differences

Abstract

Given the potential dangers of unethical decisions in the workplace, it has become increasingly important for managers to hire, and promote into leadership positions, those who are morally inclined. Behavioral ethics research has contributed to this effort by examining an array of individual difference variables (e.g., locus of control) that play a role in morality. However, past research has focused mostly on direct causal effects and not so much on the processes (including mediation) through which different factors, especially those that are morality based, decrease unethical choices. The purpose of the current research is to examine the process, which includes both subconscious and conscious decision pathways, through which moral attentiveness curbs unethical decision making at the individual level. The findings of a study employing about 200 participants and a cheating task reveal that both accurate ethical prototypes and moral awareness of the situation decreased unethical decisions, and moral attentiveness was found to be positively related to both of these constructs. In addition, having accurate ethical prototypes was found to be a partial mediator between perceptual moral attentiveness and less cheating, while moral awareness was found to be a partial mediator between reflective moral attentiveness and less cheating. The theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed.

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Notes

  1. This paper treats the root words ethical and moral as synonyms (e.g., Reynolds 2006a; Treviño et al. 2006).

  2. Given the more sensitive nature of the study materials (i.e., asking participants about cheating and their ethical decisions), the data collection procedures were anonymous and personal identifiers (i.e., student ID numbers) could not be collected for each participant. Thus, the principal investigator asked participants to self-report their GPA (which could contain some errors) instead of being able to look up their “true” GPA with their student ID number.

  3. Originally, 12 items were randomly selected from the initial 24-item measure. These 12 items had an acceptable reliability, α = .86, in a pilot study that was conducted on a separate sample of 175 undergraduate students. However, in the current study, a post hoc analysis of the results from an initial confirmatory factor analysis revealed that these 12 items had poor discriminant validity. In particular, these items had factor loadings across three dimensions and one of these dimensions did not make theoretical sense. For example, the four items that loaded on this dimension were “Lying to an instructor about illness, etc., when an exam or assignment is due”; “Failing to report grading errors when the professor has not approved ignoring errors in the student’s favor”; “Not contributing one’s fair share in a group project for which all the members will be given the same grade; “Visiting a professor after an exam with the sole intention of biasing one’s exam grade.” After careful theoretical consideration, these four items were removed from the adapted scale because they were not strongly associated with the dependent variable of cheating decision, especially in regard to the code of conduct at the university in which this data was collected.

  4. I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for helping me to more fully understand this limitation in research design.

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Acknowledgments

I would like to acknowledge the support I received from my dissertation committee members—Leanne Atwater, Steve Werner, Jim Phillips, and Lisa Penney—while working on this paper at the University of Houston. I also gratefully acknowledge the financial support I received from the Jesse H. Jones Dissertation Completion Grant at the University of Houston in order to complete my empirical study. In addition, I would like to thank David Bright and Scott Taylor for helpful comments received on previous versions of this manuscript. I am also very grateful to the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments throughout the review process.

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Correspondence to Rachel E. Sturm.

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Sturm, R.E. Decreasing Unethical Decisions: The Role of Morality-Based Individual Differences. J Bus Ethics 142, 37–57 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-015-2787-x

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Keywords

  • Ethical decision making
  • Moral attentiveness
  • Ethical prototypes
  • Moral awareness
  • Subconscious decisions
  • Individual-level unit of analysis