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Peer Ostracism as a Sanction Against Wrongdoers and Whistleblowers

Abstract

Retaliation against whistleblowers is a well-recognized problem, yet there is little explanation for why uninvolved peers choose to retaliate through ostracism. We conduct two experiments in which participants take the role of a peer third-party observer of theft and subsequent whistleblowing. We manipulate injunctive norms (whether company policy is ambiguous or unambiguous regarding the action) and descriptive norms (whether others behave similarly). Both experiments (1) support the core of our theoretical model, based on social intuitionist theory (Haidt in Psychol Rev 108:814–834, 2001), such that moral judgments of the acts of wrongdoing and whistleblowing influence the perceived likeability of each actor and ultimately influence intention to ostracize each actor and (2) indicate more willingness to ostracize the whistleblower than the wrongdoer. When we vary norms for the wrongdoing in Experiment 1, we find that descriptive and injunctive norms indirectly influence intentions to ostracize both the wrongdoer and whistleblower. These relationships are serially mediated by the observers’ moral judgments of the act (wrongdoing or whistleblowing) and likeability of the actor (wrongdoer or whistleblower). When we vary norms for whistleblowing in Experiment 2, the injunctive norm manipulation affected moral judgment of the action of whistleblowing, and we do not observe any other significant effects of the norm manipulations on moral judgments of the actions of wrongdoing or whistleblowing.

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Notes

  1. Anecdotal evidence of negative attitudes toward whistleblowing include former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers’ attorney calling employees “snitches” (Cooper 2008, p. 357) and General MacArthur’s statement, “My father and mother have taught me these two immutable principles—never to lie, never to tattle” (Pershing 2003, p. 149).

  2. Moral intuition is “the sudden appearance in consciousness of a moral judgment, including an affective valence (good-bad, like-dislike), without any conscious awareness of having gone through steps of searching, weighing evidence, or inferring a conclusion” (Haidt 2001, p. 818). “Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning.” (Haidt 2012, p. xiv).

  3. We adapted the scenario from Liyanarachchi and Newdick (2009) and Arnold and Ponemon (1991); we received IRB approval for both experiments.

  4. Our payment is typical given the completion time; approximately, half of MTurkers earn an hourly rate of less than $5.00, while approximately half earn $5.00 or more per hour (Hitlin 2016).

  5. We conducted an exploratory factor analysis of responses using a principle components extraction method and Varimax rotation for each mediating variable and the dependent variable for both experiments.

  6. When all participants are included in the sample, our conclusions remain unchanged.

  7. Concerning the control variables, whistleblower Personal Norm did not vary across the two levels of Injunctive (t254 = 1.267, p = 0.206) or Descriptive Norm (t254 = 0.332, p = 0.740). Similarly, wrongdoer Personal Norm did not vary across the two levels of Injunctive (t254 = 0.114, p = 0.910) or Descriptive Norm (t254 = 0.362, p = 0.718).

  8. We employed path analysis, rather than structural equation modeling (SEM), for two reasons. First, the experiments contain manipulations, which are arguably not appropriate for SEM (Bagozzi and Yi 1989). Second, the degrees of freedom necessary to adequately model our variables are prohibitive (Tomarken and Waller 2005).

  9. Our theory focuses on how moral judgments of one actor lead to likeability and subsequent ostracism of the same actor. This result indicates that likeability of one actor influences intentions to ostracize the other actor.

  10. When all participants are included in the sample, our conclusions remain unchanged.

  11. Concerning control variables, as in Experiment 1, whistleblower Personal Norm did not vary across levels of descriptive norm (t220 = 0.207, p = 0.836); injunctive norm has a marginal influence (t220 = 1.955, p = 0.052). Wrongdoer Personal Norm did not vary across levels of injunctive (t220 = 1.017, p = 0.310) or descriptive norm (t220 = 1.788, p = 0.075). Combined with Experiment 1, our manipulations do not affect personal norms at p < 0.05.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Charles Cho (editor), three anonymous reviewers, Danielle Cooper, Mark Davis, and Tim Miller for insightful comments that have greatly improved this paper.

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Correspondence to Mary B. Curtis.

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Appendices

Appendix 1: Manipulations

Experiment 1

Assume you are on the sales staff at CarTime Corp., a publicly traded company that manufactures automotive components such as seatbelts and cup holders. In addition to yourself, the sales staff consists of Joe and Phil. All three of you have been with the company for a few years and you each report to the sales manager, Tim.

Injunctive norm conditions—for wrongdoing

—Unambiguous—

A couple of weeks ago Joe attended an out-of-town convention. Joe’s spouse accompanied him. The company policy is that employees should submit for reimbursement the travel and accommodation expenses incurred only by the actual employee while traveling on company business.

—Ambiguous—

A couple of weeks ago Joe attended an out-of-town convention. Joe’s spouse accompanied him. The company policy is that employees should submit for reimbursement the travel and accommodation expenses incurred while traveling on company business.

Descriptive norm conditions—for wrongdoing

—Others commit the same wrongdoing—

Upon his return from the conference, Joe submitted the total travel and accommodation bills, including restaurant bills and travel costs, without reduction for spouse-related expenses. Phil learned that Joe had done this. Phil feels pretty certain that other employees submit expense reimbursements for spouse expenses. After giving it some thought, Phil reported Joe to the sales manager.

—Others do not commit the same wrongdoing—

Upon his return from the conference, Joe submitted the total travel and accommodation bills, including restaurant bills and travel costs, without reduction for spouse-related expenses. Phil learned that Joe had done this. Phil feels pretty certain that other employees do not submit expense reimbursements for spouse expenses. After giving it some thought, Phil reported Joe to the sales manager.

Experiment 2

Assume you are on the sales staff at CarTime Corp., a publicly traded company that manufactures automotive components such as seatbelts and cup holders. In addition to yourself, the sales staff consists of Joe and Phil. All three of you have been with the company for a few years and you each report to the sales manager, Tim.

A couple of weeks ago Joe attended an out-of-town convention. Joe’s spouse accompanied him. The company policy is that employees should submit for reimbursement the travel and accommodation expenses incurred only by the actual employee while traveling on company business.

Injunctive norm conditions—for whistleblowing

—Unambiguous—

Company policy also states that employees must report to their manager any suspected expense account misreporting by other employees.

—Ambiguous—

Company policy is silent regarding whether employees should report to their manager any suspected improper behavior by other employees.

Descriptive norm conditions—for whistleblowing

—Others whistleblow—

Upon his return from the conference, Joe submitted the total travel and accommodation bills, including restaurant bills and travel costs, without reduction for spouse-related expenses. Phil learned that Joe had done this. Phil feels pretty certain that other employees do report those individuals who submit expense reimbursements for spouse expenses. After giving it some thought, Phil reported Joe to the sales manager.

—Others do not whistleblow—

Upon his return from the conference, Joe submitted the total travel and accommodation bills, including restaurant bills and travel costs, without reduction for spouse-related expenses. Phil learned that Joe had done this. Phil feels pretty certain that other employees do not report those individuals who submit expense reimbursements for spouse expenses. After giving it some thought, Phil reported Joe to the sales manager.

Appendix 2: Manipulation Check Questions

Experiment 1

  1. (1)

    Phil feels pretty certain that other employees submit expense reports for spouse expenses. Scale: 1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree

  2. (2)

    Company policy is that employees should submit for reimbursement the travel and accommodation expenses incurred only by the actual employee while traveling on company business. Scale: 1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree

Experiment 2

  1. (1)

    Phil feels pretty certain that other employees report those individuals who submit expense reports for spouse expenses. Scale: 1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree

  2. (2)

    The company policy is that employees should submit for reimbursement the travel and accommodation expenses incurred only by the actual employee while traveling on company business. Scale: 1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree

  3. (3)

    The company policy is that employees should report to their manager suspected expense account misreporting by other employees. Scale: 1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree

Appendix 3: Scales

Moral Judgment

  1. (1)

    I don’t like what Phil <Joe> did.*

  2. (2)

    I can see myself in Phil’s <Joe’s> shoes.

  3. (3)

    What Phil <Joe> did was wrong.*

  4. (4)

    If I were in this situation, I would report Joe <I would submit expenses for reimbursement for my spouse>.

  5. (5)

    I identify with Phil <Joe>.

  6. (6)

    I fit in with Phil <Joe>.

Likeability

  1. (1)

    Phil <Joe> is an extremely likeable individual.

  2. (2)

    I would enjoy attending social events and interacting socially with Phil <Joe> .

  3. (3)

    I very much like working with Phil <Joe> .

  4. (4)

    Phil <Joe> is a person who quickly wins respect.

  5. (5)

    Phil <Joe> is one of the most likeable people I know.

  6. (6)

    It is very easy for Phil <Joe> to gain admiration.

  7. (7)

    Most people would react favorably to Phil <Joe> after a brief acquaintance.

  8. (8)

    I like Phil <Joe> .

  9. (9)

    I would get along well with Phil <Joe> .

  10. (10)

    Phil <Joe> would make a good friend.

Intention to Ostracize

  1. (1)

    Ignore Phil <Joe> at work.

  2. (2)

    Leave the area when Phil <Joe> enters.

  3. (3)

    Not answer Phil’s <Joe’s> greetings at work.

  4. (4)

    Refuse to sit with Phil <Joe> at meals.

  5. (5)

    Avoid Phil <Joe> at work.

  6. (6)

    Not look at Phil <Joe> at work.

  7. (7)

    Shut Phil <Joe> out of the conversation.

  8. (8)

    Refuse to talk to Phil <Joe> at work.

  9. (9)

    Behave as if Phil <Joe> weren’t there.

  10. (10)

    Not invite Phil <Joe> out for coffee after work.

Personal Norms

  1. (1)

    In general, what is your opinion of whistleblowing?

  2. (2)

    In general, what is your opinion of individuals who whistleblow?

  3. (3)

    In general, what percentage of expense reports that include spousal non-employee expense such as the one in this case are intentional violations of policy or ethics rather than accidental mistakes by an individual?

  4. (4)

    In general, what percentage of expense reports that include spousal non-employee expenses such as the one in this case are intentional actions rather than just accidents?

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Curtis, M.B., Robertson, J.C., Cockrell, R.C. et al. Peer Ostracism as a Sanction Against Wrongdoers and Whistleblowers. J Bus Ethics 174, 333–354 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-020-04596-0

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Keywords

  • Whistleblowing
  • Ostracism
  • Social intuitionist theory
  • Norms