Are Ethicality Perceptions of Different Counterproductive Behaviors Affected by Workplace Dependencies?

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  • Are Ethicality Perceptions of Different Counterproductive Behaviors Affected by Workplace


    CHOCKALINGAM V I S W E S V A R A N ~ SATlSH P. DESHPANDt Department of Management Uestern Michigan Universiti

    Florida lniernational LniLersin

    JACOB JOSEPH Deparimenr of Management

    Linittersit>. ofAlaska

    Dependency theory posits that relationships in organizations are affected by perceived dependencies. The present paper investigated whether the perceived ethicality of various counterproductive behaviors depends on perceived dependencies. Falsifying time repoits and using organizational resources for personal use were considered to be more unethical by individuals who scored low on dependency, whereas concealing ones errors was con- sidered to be more unethical by individuals who scored high on dependency. These results were not attributable to social desirability bias. Implications are elaborated.

    There has been a resurgence of research on ethical behavior in and by organi- zations in recent years (Ford & Richardson. 1994; Trevino, 1986). Although the antecedents and consequences of ethical behavior for individuals and organiza- tions have been researched, a question largely unaddressed is whether the per- ceived ethicality of a behavior depends on who commits the behavior. Is it possible that a behavior condoned or overlooked if committed by one individual will be condemned if committed by another individual? If yes, what are some explanations for such variability? More importantly, will individuals who per- ceive that their organizations depend on them take more liberties in indulging in counterproductive behaviors?

    Dependency theory (Bartol & Martin, 1988) has been used to explain organi- zational behavior that differs across target individuals equated in performance and skills. Specifically, dependency theory posits that decision makers in organi- zations take into account the critical dependencies that they face in making deci- sions. Managers and decision makers in organizations depend on other

    I We thank two anonymous reviewers for their useful comments that enriched the paper. 2Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Chockalingam Viswesvaran,

    Department of Psychology, Florida International University, Miami, FL 33 199.

    Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2000, 30, 10, pp. 2050-2057. Copyright 0 2000 by V. H. Winston & Son, Inc. All rights reserved.


    individuals to accomplish their goals. The dependence is greater if others have expertise that is crucial for achieving the decision makers goals. Also a decision makers dependence on others is related to the others connections within an organization. Finally, there is more dependence if the difficulty of replacing the individual is greater. The decision maker is expected to consider these dependen- cies in making decisions. Dependency theory has been invoked to explain mana- gerial decision making in many contexts, such as pay allocation (Bartol & Martin, 1988) and promotions (Deshpande, Schoderbek, & Joseph, 1994), and broad empirical support has been found for dependency theory.

    Dependency theory is a specific manifestation of power and influence in deci- sion making. Organizational researchers have considered issues of power and influence in explaining organizational behavior (e.g., Mintzberg, 1983; Salancik & Pfeffer, 1977) as emanating from the need to control necessary resources. In this respect, the dependency perspective can be compared to the resource depen- dency approach. Power has been defined as the inverse of dependence (Emerson, 1962).

    Most of the empirical research on dependency theory has focused on how an individuals behavior toward another individual is affected by the perceived dependency of the first individual on the second. That is, most of the research on the dependency perspective has considered the following question: If Person A perceives that he or she is dependent on Person B, then how is As behavior toward B affected? However, it is equally interesting to know how the behavior of the second individual is altered. That is, it is equally important not to neglect the following question: If A perceives that B is dependent on A, then how is As behavior toward B affected? Even though empirical research in dependency the- ory has focused on the first question, the empirical research on power, resource dependence, and influence has addressed both questions.

    This discussion of power and dependence has implications for the perceived ethicality of various counterproductive behaviors. From the dependency perspec- tive, the question is whether organizations and individuals will consider certain counterproductive behaviors (e.g., using organizational time for personal use) as less serious if committed by individuals who control critical resources (i.e., the organization depends on them) than if the same practices were committed by individuals who do not control those critical resources. Relatedly, another ques- tion concerns whether individuals who control resources critical for the organiza- tions will consider as acceptable their engaging in certain counterproductive behaviors-behaviors that individuals who do not control the critical resources have been socialized (via organizational reprimands) to consider as serious coun- terproductive behaviors.

    Specifically, in this research we examine the differences between two groups of respondents in the perceived ethicality of 17 counterproductive behaviors. The first group is comprised of individuals who believe that there is no one in


    the organization who can do the tasks that they do. Thus, this group perceives themselves as controlling resources critical to the organization. Freedman and Montanari (1980) define irreplaceability as a critical source of power. The sec- ond group of individuals does not believe that they are irreplaceable.



    Nurses working for a large nonprofit hospital in the northwestern United States were surveyed. Of the 226 surveys distributed, a total of 127 usable sur- veys were returned (56% response rate). The average age of the respondent was 39 years; 122 of the 127 respondents were female (96%); and 74 of the 127 respondents had college degrees (58%). The surveys were anonymous, and par- ticipants were assured that only aggregate data would be provided to manage- ment. On average. the respondents had worked 8 years for the hospital. A hospital administrator distributed the surveys in the workplace, and the nurses returned the completed surveys to our university address in a stamped envelope that was provided along with the survey.


    Surveys included a section for demographic information, a social desirability scale, a list of 17 business practices with ethical questions, and a question asking respondents whether there are others in the organization who can perform the tasks assigned to them. The list of counterproductive behaviors was culled from previous business ethics case examples and simulations (e.g., Randall & Fernandes, 1991). The responses were recorded on a 5-point Likeit scale ranging from 1 (not at all unethical) to 5 (ver?. unethical).


    The groups were formed by grouping the individuals who considered them- selves as irreplaceable against those who thought that there were others in the organization who can perform the tasks they do. Thus. the analysis involved dividing the sample into two groups-one who perceived themselves as highly indispensable, labeled the high dependence group; and the other who did not, labeled the low dependence group. Next. we examined whether the two groups differed in social desirability bias. The Marlowe-Crowne scale (Crowne & Marlow, 1960) was used. This is a widely used measure of social desirability. After ensuring that there were no differences in socially desirable responses, we examined group differences in the perceived ethicality of the 17 practices using


    Table 1

    Social Desirability Comparisons


    Social desirability item High Low t

    I sometimes get cross/mad. 3.32 3.61 -1.22 Once in a while, I lose my temper and get angry. 3.00 3.19 -0.62 I sometimes grumble/sulk. 2.75 2.98 -0.87 I am touchy about some things. 3.07 3.46 -1.41 When drawn into a quarrel, I prefer to be silent, 3.84 3.8 1 0.08 Overall 3.20 3.41 -1.06

    Note. n = 127.

    t tests. To index the magnitude of the differences, we report the standardized effect sizes. Effect sizes were computed as the difference in the means between the groups, divided by the pooled (across the two groups) standard deviation.


    The results of the analyses investigating potential differences in socially desirable responding between the two groups are reported in Table 1. As can be seen in Table 1 , individuals who perceived themselves as indispensable to the organizations did not significantly differ from individuals who perceived them- selves as dispensable. This conclusion holds for both individual items in the social desirability scale as well as the totaf score in social desirability. There were no significant differences in socially desirable responding between the two groups to be compared.

    The differences across the two groups in the perceived ethicality of the 17 counterproductive behaviors are presented in Table 2. It is important to note that factor analyses failed to support the hypothesis that all 17 counterproductive behaviors should be combined as one scale. This result was also reinforced by the low internal consistency estimates when collapsing across the 17 practices. Too much unique information was being lost when averaging across behaviors. As such, we focused on the 17 behaviors individually.

    As can be seen in Table 2, for 3 of the 17 behaviors, individuals in the high dependency group perceived the behavior in question as less unethical than did individuals in the low dependency group. Falsifying time reports and using orga- nizational resources for personal use were considered more unethical by individ- uals in the low dependency group compared to those in the high dependency


    Table 2

    Eflect of Dependency on Perceived Ethicality of Diflerent Counterproductive Behaviors


    Business practice High Low

    1. Using organizational services for personal use (e.g., long-distance calls) 4.39 4.60

    2. Padding an expense account up to 10% 4.76 4.74 3. Giving gifts/favors in exchange for

    preferential treatment 4.80 4.81 4. Taking longer than necessary to do a job 4.20 4.30

    6. Doing personal business on organizational time 4.00 4.13

    7. Concealing ones errors 4.78 4.54 8. Passing blame for errors to an innocent

    coworker 4.94 4.94 9. Claiming credit for someone elses work 4.85 4.85

    10. Falsifying time/quality/quantity reports 4.75 4.89 11. Padding an expense account more than 10% 4.87 4.94 12. Calling in sick to take a day off 3.62 3.80 13. Authorizing a subordinate to violate

    organizational rules 4.63 4.56 14. Pilfering organizational materials and

    15. Accepting gifts/favors in exchange for

    16. Taking extra personal time (e.g., late

    5. Divulging confidential information 4.97 4.93

    supplies 4.55 4.57

    preferential treatment 4.69 4.70

    arrivals, longer lunch hours and breaks, early departures) 4.17 4.17

    organizational policies and rules 4.07 4.00 17. Not reporting others violations of

    t d

    -1.78* 0.17

    -0.15 -0.74 1.12

    -0.84 2.16**

    0.74 -0.10 - I .77* - 1.43 -1.01






    -.32 .03

    -.03 -.13 .20

    -.15 .38

    .13 -.02 -.3 1 -.25 -.18




    .o 1


    Note. n = 127. d = Standardized effect size (see text for computation). * p < .lo. **p < .05.


    group. An opposite pattern was found for concealing ones errors. The effect sizes ranged from .01 to .38; most of the effect sizes were low to moderate in magnitude. In fact, only 5 of the 17 effect sizes were above .20 (low to moderate effect size).


    The present article postulated and empirically tested the hypothesis that indi- viduals who perceive themselves as indispensable to their employing organiza- tions may consider some counterproductive behaviors as ethical that others may consider unethical. Even though some differences were as postulated, the support for this hypothesis was marginal. Of the 17 counterproductive behaviors investi- gated, significant differences were found for one practice at the .05 level and for two practices at the .10 level. More problematic is the fact that for the two prac- tices for which significant differences were found at the .10 level, the direction of the difference is opposite to that predicted.

    The findings are reassuring in that organizational members who consider themselves as possessing critical resources (i.e., resources for which the organi- zation is dependent on them) do not abuse their positions of power. This state- ment, however, should be tempered by several caveats. First, the sample in the present study was comprised of nurses. It is possible that nurses and medical pro- fessionals are socialized with the service value that they do not consider exploit- ing the organizations that depend on them. That is, the respondents who considered that there was no one to replace them felt obligated not to abuse this dependence. It would be interesting to see if these findings hold for a sample of politicians or salespersons. It would certainly be helpful to replicate these find- ings in other industries. Specifically, fiture research should explore the boundary conditions and circumstances under which this finding holds.

    Another issue to consider in interpreting the results is our operationalization of dependence. We considered those individuals whose duties cannot be com- pleted by others in the organization as possessing power. However, if individuals who possess critical skills engage in behaviors to extract advantage from the unique skills possessed by them, organizations may be tempted to adopt strate- gies (e.g., train other individuals to take over in an emergency, automate, hire new replacements with the critical skills) to reduce this dependence. Perhaps the only individuals who possess unique skills (i.e., no one else can do the tasks they do) are those who do not parade this source of power. Addressing this issue is a fruitful avenue for fiture research. Essentially, future research should consider dependence effects as distinct from dependency threats. It is possible that depen- dency threats will elicit different responses than does dependence.

    In the present article, we assessed the effects of dependence in a global man- ner. More fine-grained analysis is needed to examine whether different types of


    dependencies (e.g., expertise, organizational connections) will elicit different reactions to counterproductive behaviors. For example, it is an interesting empiri- cal question to examine whether individuals who think that there is no one in the organization to replace their skills will be more ethical (i.e., feel obligated to ful- f i l l their tasks conscientiously and ethically). On the other hand, individuals whose predominant source of dependent power is organizational connections may consider some business practices as ethical that others without organizational connections will consider unethical. More interesting is the interaction between type of dependency and the counterproductive behavior under consideration.

    The results reported in the present paper can be linked to the results reported in personality assessment in organizations. Researchers (e.g., Hogan & Ones, 1997) have summarized massive empirical data that the personality trait of con- scientiousness is an important predictor of counterproductive behaviors. Further- more, conscientiousness levels seem to be related to ethicality perceptions of different behaviors (Dunn. Mount. Barrick. & Ones, 1995). It will be a worth- while endeavor to examine the interaction between individual personality and dependency perceptions on perceived ethicality of different counterproductive behaviors. Also interesting will be an examination of group and organizational culture and its effects on ethicality perceptions. Gilbert and Ones (in press) dis- cuss how the level of informal integration into work groups affects individual perceptions. It would also be interesting to examine whether the referent or com- parison other used by respondents varies by gender, age, and race (cf. Werner & Ones, 2000).

    Most of the previous research on the antecedents of ethical behavior (see Ford & Richardson. 1994, for a review) has concentrated on variables identified on theoretical frameworks. such as individual differences, developmental differ- ences, and organizational and situational factors. A major contribution of the present study is that we explored the perceived ethicality of 17 counterproductive behaviors from the perspective of dependencies, power, resource dependence, control, and influence. Politics is a fact of organization, and an understanding of any organizational behavior (including ethical behavior) should consider the political aspects of the organization for a richer and fuller understanding.


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