Why Bosses Cut Some Employees Slack for Unethical Behavior
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Organizations May 1, 2018

Why Boss­es Cut Some Employ­ees Slack for Uneth­i­cal Behavior

The same trans­gres­sion can lead to dif­fer­ent con­se­quences. Here’s one rea­son why.

Ego depletion can lead to unethical behavior at work.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Yajun Zhang

Kai Chi Yam

Maryam Kouchaki

Junwei Zhang

Imag­ine — or per­haps you don’t have to — that you’re at work and feel­ing very tired. You’re near­ing the dead­line on an impor­tant project, and you’ve stayed late at the office every day for weeks. Per­haps because you’re feel­ing so fatigued, when you sub­mit an expense report for a recent lunch, you may round up just a smidge.

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Now imag­ine you are the man­ag­er who catch­es this mis­deed. How do you react? Does know­ing the employ­ee was exhaust­ed influ­ence your response? 

Very pos­si­bly, accord­ing to new research from Maryam Koucha­ki, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School. She and coau­thors find that we judge employ­ees’ eth­i­cal laps­es less harsh­ly when we per­ceive the way­ward work­ers to be tired. And we are par­tic­u­lar­ly soft on employ­ees who are tired for rea­sons out­side of their con­trol: because they stayed up to care for a fam­i­ly mem­ber, for instance, or had an over­whelm­ing workload. 

In pre­vi­ous research, Koucha­ki has shown that uneth­i­cal behav­ior at work is more like­ly when employ­ees are in a state of ego deple­tion” — that is, when they are worn down as a result of fatigue, phys­i­cal dis­com­fort, or the exhaus­tion of mak­ing con­stant choic­es. For exam­ple, she has found that we’re more like­ly to make moral mis­steps in the after­noon than the morn­ing because our cog­ni­tive resources are grad­u­al­ly drained over the course of the day. 

Our self-reg­u­la­to­ry resources are lim­it­ed,” Koucha­ki explains. When you use those resources, they are deplet­ed, and you have to replen­ish them to be able to use them again.” 

The cur­rent research shows the flip side of this. It explores how our under­stand­ing of ego deple­tion influ­ences how we per­ceive such malfea­sance in others. 

Uneth­i­cal behav­ior that is inten­tion­al is often seen as more blameworthy.”

And while the ten­den­cy is to go easy on a deplet­ed employ­ee, man­agers risk cre­at­ing a dan­ger­ous prece­dent, Koucha­ki says. If employ­ees rarely receive pun­ish­ment for fudg­ing their expense reports sim­ply because they were over­worked when they did it, there is lit­tle incen­tive to be truth­ful the next time.

Judg­ing this behav­ior lenient­ly could have con­se­quences,” she explains. 

Ego Deple­tion and Uneth­i­cal Behavior 

Uneth­i­cal behav­ior at work is tricky to study in its nat­ur­al set­ting — after all, you can’t (and shouldn’t!) recruit exper­i­men­tal sub­jects to steal from their employers. 

So Koucha­ki and her coau­thors, Yujan Zhang of the Guizhou Uni­ver­si­ty of Finance and Eco­nom­ics, Kai Chi of the Nation­al Uni­ver­si­ty of Sin­ga­pore, and Jun­wei Zhang of Huazhong Agri­cul­tur­al Uni­ver­si­ty in Chi­na, cre­at­ed four videos to bet­ter under­stand observers’ reac­tions to uneth­i­cal behav­ior and ego depletion. 

In two videos, a chip­per, well-rest­ed employ­ee named John talks to his man­ag­er about an impor­tant merg­er. He empha­sizes that he has been sleep­ing well, despite in the first video stay­ing up to work hard on the merg­er and in the sec­ond watch­ing sports. In the third video, a decid­ed­ly less pep­py John says work­ing on the merg­er has been keep­ing him up late; in the fourth, he men­tions stay­ing up late to watch the NBA play­offs. At the end of all four films, John pads a lunch expense. 

Each par­tic­i­pant watched one of the four videos, then answered a series of ques­tions about John’s behav­ior on a scale from one to sev­en. Some ques­tions mea­sured par­tic­i­pants’ opin­ion of the seri­ous­ness of John’s trans­gres­sion (“To what extent do you think John’s behav­ior was uneth­i­cal?”) and the need for dis­ci­pline (“How severe­ly should John be pun­ished?”). Oth­ers probed the issue of inten­tion­al­i­ty (“To what extent did John know­ing­ly engage in fraud?”). 

The results showed that cheaters might just pros­per — if they’re tired. 

Study par­tic­i­pants who viewed the vis­i­bly deplet­ed John judged him as behav­ing less inten­tion­al­ly than those who saw a well-rest­ed John. They also advo­cat­ed less severe pun­ish­ment for him. And John-the-over­worked-employ­ee was pun­ished even more lenient­ly than John-the-sleepy-sports-fan. 

The researchers repeat­ed the same exper­i­ment with a new group of par­tic­i­pants. These sub­jects read one of four sce­nar­ios sim­i­lar to those shown in the videos, with one sig­nif­i­cant change. In the final sce­nario, instead of stay­ing up late for a work project, John says he is tired because he was up late tak­ing care of his sick infant son. 

These changes made lit­tle dif­fer­ence in observers’ per­cep­tions — they still cut the two tired ver­sions of John some slack, as com­pared to the two well-rest­ed ver­sions. John-the-devot­ed-par­ent was giv­en the most lenien­cy of all. Notably, par­tic­i­pants also viewed John’s mis­be­hav­ior as being sig­nif­i­cant­ly less inten­tion­al when he stayed up late to care for his son than when he lost sleep after watch­ing sports (rat­ing his degree of inten­tion­al­i­ty an aver­age of 4.62 ver­sus 5.7 out of 7). 

To Koucha­ki, the find­ing has intu­itive appeal. In gen­er­al, uneth­i­cal behav­ior that is inten­tion­al is often seen as more blame­wor­thy,” she says. Unin­ten­tion­al bad behav­ior, like a child acci­den­tal­ly steal­ing a piece of can­dy from a store, is viewed through an entire­ly dif­fer­ent lens — and rarely punished. 

The same force is at work in this research: we view tired and over­worked peo­ple as behav­ing less delib­er­ate­ly, and so we are more like­ly to let them slide. 

Peo­ple are tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion the employee’s sit­u­a­tion when mak­ing these choic­es,” she says. 

Rest­ed Employ­ees Are Hon­est Employees 

This lenien­cy is under­stand­able, but that does not nec­es­sar­i­ly make it good, Koucha­ki empha­sizes. Man­agers should con­sid­er the con­text for their employ­ees’ behav­ior but must still ensure there are con­se­quences for eth­i­cal vio­la­tions, so that employ­ees learn from their moral fail­ures, even when those vio­la­tions are small or rel­a­tive­ly common. 

Per­haps the best way orga­ni­za­tions can do this is to make sure employ­ees do not become exhaust­ed and deplet­ed in the first place. 

As a leader, if you see or sus­pect eth­i­cal laps­es in your orga­ni­za­tion, you could make struc­tur­al changes such that peo­ple could dis­en­gage from work when they got home,” Koucha­ki sug­gests, rather than being on call all the time and being anx­ious about it.” 

Featured Faculty

Maryam Kouchaki

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.

About the Research

Zhang, Yajun, Kai Chi Yam, Maryam Kouchaki, and Junwei Zhang. In press. “Cut You Some Slack? An Investigation of the Perceptions of a Depleted Employee's Unethicality.” Journal of Business Ethics.

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