Feelings of ethical superiority can lead to workplace ostracism, social undermining: Study

April 24, 2018

WACO, Texas (April 24, 2018) - Do you consider yourself more ethical than your coworker?

Caution! Your feelings of ethical superiority can cause a chain reaction that is detrimental to you, your coworker and your organization, according to Baylor University management research.

A new study published in the Journal of Business Ethics suggests that your feelings of ethical superiority can lead you to have negative emotions toward a "less ethical" coworker. Those negative emotions can be amplified if you also believe you do not perform as well as that coworker. And, furthermore, those negative emotions can lead to your mistreatment and/or ostracism (social exclusion) of that less ethical, higher-performing coworker.

"One way to think of this is that it is - and should be - concerning to us to believe that we are more ethical than our coworkers, especially if we do not perform as well as they do," said lead author Matthew Quade, Ph.D., assistant professor of management in Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business and an expert on workplace ethics and ostracism.

The research, Quade said, can help managers create better atmospheres and improve the bottom line.

"The managerial implication is that we need to create environments where ethics and performance are both rewarded," he said.

A total of 741 people, among them 310 employees ("focal employees") and an equal number of their coworkers ("comparison coworkers"), were surveyed for the study. Focal employees compared themselves with their coworkers based on two areas: perceived ethics and performance. Then they rated their levels of negative emotions (i.e., feelings of contempt, tension or disgust) toward those same comparison coworkers.

Results show that employees who believe they are more ethical than similar coworkers (i.e., those that hold similar positions, have similar education background and similar tenure in the organization) feel negative emotions (i.e., contempt, disgust, stress, repulsion) when thinking about those coworkers. These negative emotions about the coworker are amplified when the employees also believe they do not perform as well as those same coworkers.

In turn, the comparison coworkers rated how often they experienced social undermining (i.e., insults, spreading of rumors, belittling of ideas) and ostracism (i.e., ignored, avoided, shut out of conversations) from the focal employee.

Results also show that the negative emotions that the "more ethical, lower performing" employees experience may result in them behaving in unethical ways directed at their coworkers. Specifically, they become more likely to socially undermine and ostracize those "less ethical, higher performing" coworkers. All the study's results exist regardless of gender and any positive emotion the employees may experience as a result of believing they are more ethical.

Ultimately, such workplace scenarios pose a conundrum for managers, Quade said. On one hand, there is the ethical worker who doesn't perform as well. On the other hand, there's the less ethical worker who hits all the goals.

Who gets rewarded?

"If high performance is the result of questionable or unethical behavior, that combination should not be celebrated," the researchers wrote. "Instead, organizations should be cautious when rewarding and promoting performance within organizations, ensuring that they also consider the way the job is done from an ethical standpoint."

The ideal situation, the study reveals, is when high ethics and high performance are the norm - and employees are rewarded.

"Enhancing the ethical behavior of all employees should be an emphasis to attempt to remove some of the disparity that tends to exist between employees when it comes to their moral behavior at work," the researchers wrote.

"'If Only My Coworker Was More Ethical': When Ethical and Performance Comparisons Lead to Negative Emotions, Social Undermining, and Ostracism," published in the Journal of Business Ethics, is authored by Matthew Quade, Ph.D., assistant professor of management, Hankamer School of Business, Baylor University; Rebecca Greenbaum, Ph.D., associate professor of management, Spears School of Business, Oklahoma State University; and Mary Mawritz, Ph.D., associate professor of management, LeBow College of Business, Drexel University.


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 17,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.


Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business provides a rigorous academic experience, consisting of classroom and hands-on learning, guided by Christian commitment and a global perspective. Recognized nationally for several programs, including Entrepreneurship and Accounting, the school offers 24 undergraduate and 13 graduate areas of study. Visit http://www.baylor.edu/businessand follow on Twitter at twitter.com/Baylor_Business.

Baylor University

Related Negative Emotions Articles from Brightsurf:

Why are memories attached to emotions so strong?
Multiple neurons in the brain must fire in synchrony to create persistent memories tied to intense emotions, new research from Columbia neuroscientists has found.

The relationship between looking/listening and human emotions
Toyohashi University of Technology has indicated that the relationship between attentional states in response to pictures and sounds and the emotions elicited by them may be different in visual perception and auditory perception.

Negative emotions cause stronger appetite responses in emotional eaters
A recent study at the University of Salzburg found that emotional eaters -- people who use food to regulate negative emotions -- had a stronger appetite response and found food to be more pleasant when experiencing negative emotions compared to neutral emotions.

Multitasking in the workplace can lead to negative emotions
From writing papers to answering emails, it's common for office workers to juggle multiple tasks at once.

Study highlights new strategies for helping children process negative emotions
A recent study of indigenous people in southern Chile challenges Western assumptions about children's emotional capabilities and highlights the value of spending time outdoors to help children regulate their emotions.

The 'place' of emotions
The entire set of our emotions is mapped in a small region of the brain, a 3 centimeters area of the cortex, according to a study conducted at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, Italy.

Students do better in school when they can understand, manage emotions
Students who are better able to understand and manage their emotions effectively, a skill known as emotional intelligence, do better at school than their less skilled peers, as measured by grades and standardized test scores, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

Teens who can describe negative emotions can stave off depression
Teenagers who can describe their negative emotions in precise and nuanced ways are better protected against depression than their peers who can't.

How people want to feel determines whether others can influence their emotions
New Stanford research on emotions shows that people's motivations are a driving factor behind how much they allow others to influence their feelings, such as anger.

Emotions from touch
Touching different types of surfaces may incur certain emotions. This was the conclusion made by the psychologists from the Higher School of Economics in a recent empirical study.

Read More: Negative Emotions News and Negative Emotions Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.