Everyone has known a coworker who wastes time, mismanages resources, and has been known to engage in activities that are conflicts of interest, yet they "do no wrong" in the eyes of the company.


Because they produce. 

A new paper in Personnel Psychology discusses surveys of why employees' unethical behaviors may be tolerated or rejected. The scholars conducted three studies and surveyed 1,040 people, including more than 300 pairs of supervisors and their employees.

Survey results show:

  • High job performance may provide a motivated reason to ignore moral violations

  • Unethical people are more likely to be ostracized if they do not perform well
  • These results exist regardless of gender
  • These results exist regardless of the ethical culture of the organization

"Unethical, high-performing employees provide contrasting worth to the organization," the scholars wrote. "The employees' unethical behaviors can be harmful, but their high job performance is also quite important to the organization's success. In this vein, high job performance may offset unethical behavior enough to where the employee is less likely to be ostracized."

On the flip side, unethical, low-performing individuals do not fare as well.

"[They] not only violate moral norms, but they fail to fulfill role expectations, which would make them particularly difficult to work with as evidenced by relationship conflict," they say. "People, then, are expected to demonstrate their disapproval towards those who create conflict by ostracizing them."

"In this study, we're asking the questions: When and why are people ostracized - or excluded from the group - while at work?" said the study's lead author, Matthew J. Quade, Ph.D., assistant professor of management in Baylor's Hankamer School of Business. Quade said the research ultimately shows that unethical behavior, while overlooked in some cases, and ostracism are detrimental to the organization and all involved. 

"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," they believe. 

The paper offers two ways that organizations can curtail improper behavior and curb workplace ostracism. Academics giving sweeping advice to successful companies is always interesting:

1. Make it clear that employees' unethical behaviors, regardless of performance, will not be tolerated. Which they do anyway, and yet it is tolerated, for successful people.

2. Provide a more functional way for employees to respond to unethical employees. Without looking like they are jealous.