Leaders Matter Morally: The Role of Ethical Leadership in Shaping Employee Moral Cognition and Misconduct

Posted: 7 Mar 2015  

Celia Moore

London Business School; Harvard University - Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics

David M. Mayer

University of Central Florida

Flora F. T. Chiang

Independent

Craig D. Crossley

Independent

Matthew J. Karlesky

University of Michigan, Stephen M. Ross School of Business

Thomas A. Birtch

Independent

Date Written: December 21, 2014

Abstract

There has long been interest in the role of leaders on the misconduct of those who are subordinate to them. However, the limited evidence about how this occurs focuses predominantly on behavioral aspects of role modeling and reciprocation. We extend this research by more closely examining how ethical leaders can shape employee behavior via their effect on employees’ moral disengagement — a cognitive orientation that determines how individuals conceive and mentally approach decisions with ethical import. In three integrated studies, we find that ethical leadership decreases employees’ moral disengagement, which in turn mediates the effect of ethical leadership on employees’ deviant behavior and unethical decisions. Further, subordinate moral identity moderates the mediated effect of ethical leaders on subsequent subordinate decisions and misconduct. Whereas results from Study 2 support an “immunity” hypothesis, wherein high moral identity subordinates are less susceptible to less ethical leader behaviors, Study 3 findings support a “virtuous synergy” perspective wherein high moral identity subordinates are susceptible to the influence of moral exemplars. These results provide evidence that ethical leadership matters in employees’ tendencies to morally disengage, and that employees’ moral identity affects this relationship in important ways, with consequential behavioral outcomes for organizations.

Keywords: ethical leadership; moral disengagement; moral identity; unethical behavior; employee deviance

Suggested Citation

Moore, Celia and Mayer, David M. and Chiang, Flora F. T. and Crossley, Craig D. and Karlesky, Matthew J. and Birtch, Thomas A., Leaders Matter Morally: The Role of Ethical Leadership in Shaping Employee Moral Cognition and Misconduct (December 21, 2014). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2574219

Celia Moore (Contact Author)

London Business School ( email )

Sussex Place
Regent's Park
London, NW1 4SA
United Kingdom
020 7000 8931 (Phone)

Harvard University - Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics ( email )

124 Mount Auburn Street
Suite 520N
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

David M. Mayer

University of Central Florida

4000 Central Florida Blvd
Orlando, FL 32816-1400
United States

Flora F. T. Chiang

Independent ( email )

No Address Available

Craig D. Crossley

Independent

No Address Available

Matthew J. Karlesky

University of Michigan, Stephen M. Ross School of Business ( email )

701 Tappan Street
Ann Arbor, MI MI 48109
United States

Thomas A. Birtch

Independent

No Address Available

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