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How to Manage an Immoral Employee Before It's Too Late

You may be hesitant to label an employee "immoral," but overlooking unethical tendencies can have disastrous effects on your business.
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Morality is a tough character trait to judge in your employees. But if you put off dealing with an employee's morality issues because it's difficult or socially awkward, you may leave your company and your employees vulnerable.

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London and an expert on personality profiling and psychometric testing, writes in the Harvard Business Review about what makes morality difficult for leaders to manage.

"First, morality is hard to define, especially without getting too philosophical, and management writers are typically allergic to metaphysics. Second, it is controversial to label people as immoral (although alternative terms--unprincipled, dishonest, corrupt--are hardly euphemisms)," Chamorro-Premuzic writes. "The third problem is that managers struggle to judge moral character, not just in their subordinates but also in themselves. Many managers suffer from a common misconception that honesty and competence are positively correlated, but there are as many honest people who are incompetent as competent people who are dishonest." 

The result is that the question of morality in the business world is left unanswered. Or, as in high-profile cases such as WorldCom, Enron, and Bernard Madoff, the question is answered too late. "Much of the management world operates under the illusion that employees are generally ethical, and that bad apples are not only an exception but also easy to detect. Yet dishonest work behaviors, such as staff abuse, rule bending, and theft cost the economy billions," Chamorro-Premuzic writes.

Below, find Chamorro-Premuzic's tips on how to manage an employee who lacks a strong moral compass.

Keep employees engaged

Chamorro-Premuzic says that research has found that job satisfaction correlates to work behavior. "Even less ethical individuals will be more likely to act morally if they are engaged at work. By the same token, alienating employees may enhance moral disengagement even in those with higher integrity," he writes. "Give employees meaningful tasks, make them feel valued, treat them like adults, and they will be more compelled to exercise organizational citizenship, no matter how principled they are."

Lead by example

This one you should know, but research also proves that a leader's morality determines how ethical or unethical the organization is in employees' view. "For managers, the implication is clear: if you want your employees to act morally, start by acting morally yourself," Chamorro-Premuzic writes. Also, pair your less moral employees with your most moral ones to inspire ethical behavior.

Implement moral training

Although your employees' moral predispositions are already set, an organization can influence people's decision-making. "The Ethics Resource Center reports that businesses that implement formal programs to support ethical choices, such as whistleblowing, decrease counterproductive behaviors and misconduct rates, as well as increasing employee satisfaction," Chamorro-Premuzic writes.

Control the environment

You cannot change an employee's personality, but you can change how your office is run. If you have a few immoral employees, don't let their behavior go unchecked. "Ethical behavior is a function of both people's personalities and the situations they are in. Everybody has a dark side, but the antisocial aspects of our personalities are much more likely to surface in toxic environments or situations of weak moral pressure," Chamorro-Premuzic says. "Managers can do a great deal to affect the environment employees inhabit. Managers can help employees who are less capable of exercising self-control by surveilling and controlling them a bit more."

Create a selfless culture

You should build a culture where selflessness is rewarded. "Although organizational culture cannot be created overnight, meta-analytic reviews have demonstrated that a caring culture prevents unethical work behaviors, whereas a culture of self-interest promotes them," Chamorro-Premuzic writes. "What matters is persuading employees that the organization truly values generous, selfless behaviors."

Last updated: May 27, 2014

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported on the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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