Bad Cases, Bad Apples

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Journal of Applied Psychology 2010, Vol. 95, No. 1, 1–31

© 2010 American Psychological Association 0021-9010/10/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0017103

Bad Apples, Bad Cases, and Bad Barrels: Meta-Analytic Evidence About Sources of Unethical Decisions at Work Jennifer J. Kish-Gephart, David A. Harrison, and Linda Klebe Trevino ˜ Pennsylvania State University, University Park Campus

As corporate scandals proliferate, practitioners and researchers alike need a cumulative, quantitative understanding of the antecedents associated with unethical decisions in organizations. In this metaanalysis, the authors draw from over 30 years of research and multiple literatures to examine individual (“bad apple”), moral issue (“bad case”), and organizational environment (“bad barrel”) antecedents of unethical choice. Findings provide empirical support for several foundational theories and paint a clearer picture of relationships characterized by mixed results. Structural equation modeling revealed the complexity (multidetermined nature) of unethical choice, as well as a need for research that simultaneously examines different sets of antecedents. Moderator analyses unexpectedly uncovered better prediction of unethical behavior than of intention for several variables. This suggests a need to more strongly consider a new “ethical impulse” perspective in addition to the traditional “ethical calculus” perspective. Results serve as a data-based foundation and guide for future theoretical and empirical development in the domain of behavioral ethics. Keywords: unethical behavior, intuition, decision making, intention

For over 30 years, researchers have attempted to determine why individuals behave unethically in the workplace. Once viewed as the province of philosophers—a “‘Sunday school’ subject not worthy of serious investigation”— behavioral ethics has become a legitimate and necessary field of social scientific inquiry (Trevino, ˜ 1986, p. 601). Indeed, as ethical scandals have garnered attention across multiple sectors of society (e.g., business, government, sports, religion, education), research examining the determinants of individual-level unethical choices at work has grown dramatically (for reviews, see O’Fallon & Butterfield, 2005; Tenbrunsel & Smith-Crowe, 2008; Trevino, Weaver, & Reynolds, 2006). Be˜ tween 1996 and 2005, over 170 investigations were published (O’Fallon & Butterfield, 2005). Yet, despite this increased attention, much remains to be understood about how and under what circumstances individuals make unethical choices. Recent qualitative reviews of the behavioral ethics literature (O’Fallon & Butterfield, 2005; Tenbrunsel & Smith-Crowe, 2008) noted that studies have produced inconsistent findings for many proposed antecedents of unethical choices. These authors have called for

Jennifer J. Kish-Gephart, David A. Harrison, and Linda Klebe Trevino, ˜ Department of Management and Organization, Pennsylvania State University, University Park Campus. We extend a special thanks to Joe Youn and the Ethics Resource Center for assistance in acquiring data for this project and to Penn State’s Arthur W. Page Center for its financial assistance and support. We also extend our thanks to Aimee Hamilton for her assistance with coding as well as to Dan Chiaburu, Jim Detert, Gary Weaver, and the members of the ORG seminar at Penn State for their feedback on earlier drafts of this article. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jennifer J. Kish-Gephart, Department of Management and Organization, 439A Business Building, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16801. E-mail: jjg303@psu.edu 1

quantitative summaries to “derive statistically valid conclusions” about the proposed antecedents (O’Fallon & Butterfield, 2005, p. 405; see also Robertson, 1993). In this paper, we attempt to provide a clearer empirical and theoretical picture of what we know (and don’t know) about multiple sources of influence on...
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