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Employees more likely to imitate unethical behaviour in subordinates than in managers

14 April 2014
Employees in an organization are more likely to imitate unethical behaviour in subordinates than in managers. In addition, they also tend to copy ‘good’ behaviour from staff in higher positions. These are among the findings contained in a thesis written by Sanne Ponsioen. She also discovered that the tendency to copy immoral behaviour from other people is a question of character: ‘This is something you can measure in assessments, so it might be wise to pay more attention to this personality trait when recruiting new staff.’ Ponsioen will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 17 April.
Sanne Ponsioen
Sanne Ponsioen

There is nothing new about unethical behaviour, which Ponsioen summarizes as ‘fraud’ for the sake of convenience. In this research, it is taken to mean illegal and morally unacceptable behaviour such as stealing, lying and deceiving. Studies have shown that companies can lose up to 5% of their annual income because of fraud and in some cases, fraud is even committed in the interests of the company, as in the Enron scandal when employees collaborated to defraud their customers.


Ponsioen came across some unexpected findings in her research. ‘You would probably expect an employee to say: ‘If the boss can do it, so can I’. But it turns out that people are more likely to copy unethical behaviour in colleagues with lower status. Unethical behaviour usually starts on a fairly small scale, but can spread through an organization like wildfire. On the other hand, one of my studies showed that people imitate good behaviour in people with higher status. This shows how important it is for managers to set a good example.’


Ponsioen conducted her research using questionnaires, case studies and psychological experiments. In her opinion, the tendency to commit fraud in the first place is a question of character. ‘People who are very good at rationalizing their behaviour, who can talk their way out of difficult situations, are clearly more prone. You can test this personality trait in assessments so it should be easy to identify and reject applicants who display it.’


The degree to which employees feel committed to their company is another important factor. Employees who do not feel committed or involved are more likely to steal from their boss. On the other hand, people may also identify so strongly with their employer that they become tempted to deceive and defraud on behalf of the company. Ponsioen: ‘Unethical behaviour isn’t always aimed against the organization, but it’s still unethical.’

Curriculum Vitae

Sanne Ponsioen (Groningen, 1984) studied International Business & Management and Human Resource Management at the University of Groningen. She conducted her PhD research in the Department of HRM & OB of the Faculty of Economics and Business. Her thesis is entitled: ‘Contagious business: when we copy unethical behavior’, and her supervisors are Prof. H.B.M. Molleman and Dr L.B. Mulder. Ponsioen currently works as a coordinator of the Graduate School BSS and lectures at the University of Groningen.

Last modified:13 March 2020 02.18 a.m.
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