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Sad But True: If You're Good At Your Job, Employers Don't Care If You're Ethical

A survey of managers and employees shows how rogue employees can hurt a company and still get away with it.

Sad But True: If You're Good At Your Job, Employers Don't Care If You're Ethical

Photo: Paolo Cipriani/Getty Images

If you are a morally abhorrent person, your employers and maybe even co-workers will give you a pass—as long as your work is good. That's the finding of a new study, which also seems to totally explain Patrick American Psycho Bateman.

The study, out of Baylor University, set out to discover why people are ostracized or excluded while at work. The researchers surveyed a total of 1,040 people, including more than 300 pairs of supervisors and their employees.

Their results? Competence in your job is more important than your behavior. In fact, you can get away with the kind of ethically dodgy behavior that would normally make people wonder why you still have a job, as long as your bosses are happy with your performance.

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"The employees’ unethical behaviors can be harmful, but their high job performance is also quite important to the organization’s success," says the report. "In this vein, high job performance may offset unethical behavior enough to where the employee is less likely to be ostracized." This phenomena occurs even in ethically conscious organizations, says the study's lead author Matthew Quade.

What if you're unethical, and also a poor performer? Then you're in for a bad time. These people "not only violate moral norms, but they fail to fulfill role expectations, which would make them particularly difficult to work with," says the report.

While ignoring bad behavior in high-performing employees might seem merely objectionable, it's actually bad for the organization. Like other short-sighted company policies such as encouraging long work hours, it can backfire.

"Unethical, yet high-performing employees, their work groups, and their organizations may exist on a false foundation that has the potential to crumble and cost employees their jobs and their organizations significant amounts of money," the researchers said.

The fixes are straightforward, even if implementing them may be difficult—after all, it's a lot easier to fire somebody for failing in their work than it is to fire them because you don't like their opinions or their attitude to their fellow workers.

Quade's team recommends swift discipline for unethical behavior, coupled with deliberately staffing leadership roles with ethical people, in order to set an example. Employees should also be encouraged to rat out the bad actors, creating a structure for problems to be dealt with. The alternative is seething discontent within the ranks, as these ethically challenged workers are allowed to get away with metaphorical murder.

The study is encouraging, because we've all worked with these people and likely felt powerless to do anything about them. Whether it's the bartender that everybody knows is stealing from the register, but who is otherwise so reliable and hardworking that they keep their job, or the office worker who always turns up late and leaves early when the bosses aren't around, we feel a sense of unfairness when they get away with it. Maybe in the future these morons will get what they deserve.

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