Unethical workplace behavior is any action at work that goes against the prevailing moral norms of a community.

At work, unethical behavior can take multiple forms and have multiple targets. From minor to severe forms, everyone can behave unethically, hurting societies, organizations, colleagues, and even the self in the process.

Many studies show that unethical workplace behavior is not only prevalent in most organizations throughout the world, but also extremely costly[1] [2] [3] [4].

Read on to learn more about unethical workplace behavior.

Definition of unethical workplace behavior

Most experts define unethical workplace behavior as any harmful action at work that violates the moral norms of the broader community[5] [6] [7].

This definition highlights five important aspects of unethical behavior.

Unethical workplace behavior and illegal behavior are not the same

First, unethical behavior and illegal behavior overlap, but only to a certain extent.

For instance, there are new moral standards that are not yet part of our legal or regulatory systems. Likewise, we have laws and regulations being enforced that are no longer a reflection of our current moral standards.

Regulations and unethical behavior, thus, co-evolve over time and are largely a reflection of the belief system of a community at a given time. More often than not, laws and regulations tend to follow the evolving moral beliefs of a community, but frequently with a delay[4].

Unethical and illegal behavior at work only overlap to a certain extent

Unethical workplace behavior can be intentional and unintentional

Second, this definition suggests that when people behave unethically they can do it intentionally or unintentionally[8].

In intentional unethical behavior, people know that they are crossing an ethical boundary and they act purposely. When people chose to behave unethically they can do it for selfish reasons, but also as the result of situations in which all available options have ethical costs. Counterproductive work behavior is another label that has been used for this type of intentional action.

In contrast, people sometimes behave unethically because they are not aware that they are transgressing moral standards. These unintentional unethical behaviors can be due to, for example, failure to notice important information while making a decision, inability to identify the ethical ramifications of a decision, or even lack of knowledge of what is acceptable and unacceptable for a given community.

Unethical workplace behavior is anchored socially

Third, this definition brings to the spotlight the social anchoring of unethical workplace behavior.

Communities (such as organizations, departments, and teams) develop and implement moral rules to prevent selfish behaviors that can jeopardize their viability, and to stimulate cooperative behaviors among people who depend upon each other[9].

As social animals, we tend to internalize the moral standards of our communities, and we end up influencing others morally in the same direction[10] [11].

This cycle sustains the moral standards of a community but can also be a source of tension between communities. For example, we may find ourselves disagreeing with people from other communities on what is right or wrong at work, and struggling to understand their ethical position due to our internalized standards.

Context defines, to a certain extent, what is unethical at work

Fourth, bluntly illegal and unethical acts aside, unethical behavior is highly contextual[12].

Since what is considered ethical or unethical largely depends on the judgment of the broader community, a behavior can be unethical in one context and common practice in another.

For example, while giving a gift to a former supervisor or to a friend is perfectly acceptable, giving a gift to a current supervisor might violate your company regulations and constitute unethical behavior.

Many workplace behaviors are not ethical or unethical per se; the context and the reasoning behind those behaviors largely define their ethicality.

Individuals and aggregates can be unethical at work

Fifth, unethical behavior can occur at any level[13] [14].

Employees, managers, owners, and executives can all behave unethically.

Likewise, aggregates of people (such as groups/teams, committees, and organizations) can also engage in unethical workplace behavior.

Types of unethical behavior in the workplace

Unethical behavior at work comes in many shapes and forms. The simplest way to categorize unethical behavior in the workplace is to consider both the target of the unethical behavior as well as its severity[15] [16].

In the table below we outline examples of the multiple types of unethical behavior you may face at work based on the target primarily harmed (society, organization, other employees, self) and on the severity of the behavior (minor/moderate and severe).

Table 1. Examples of types of unethical behavior in the workplace, based on their target and severity.

    Severity of the unethical behavior
    Minor/Moderate Severe

Target of the unethical behavior

Society

Misleading communications

Fraudulent behavior

Anti-competitive activity

Organization

Production deviance

Withdrawal

Knowledge hiding

Property deviance and sabotage
Other employees

Political deviance

Ostracism

Interpersonal deviance

Aggression

Bullying/mobbing

Abusive leadership

Self Alcohol and drug use

Unsafe behavior

Alcohol and drug abuse

Before adopting this categorization of unethical behavior, it is important to keep in mind three core aspects:

  • Some types of unethical behavior can have more than one target. For example, unsafe behavior can put you in danger as well as other employees.
  • Each type of unethical behavior can have both direct and indirect targets and consequences. For example, while political deviance can create an unfair advantage over other employees for a promotion, it can also (indirectly) undermine the long term effectiveness of the team/organization due to the promotion of a sub-optimal employee.
  • Minor and severe unethical behaviors tend to have minor and severe consequences, respectively. Nevertheless, minor unethical behaviors can also lead to severe consequences and severe misconduct can cause no substantial harm. For example, lack of attention and effort at work – a minor unethical behavior of withdrawal – may lead to unsatisfactory products or services and consequent contract losses – a severe consequence for the organization.

Examples of unethical behavior in the workplace

Each type of unethical behavior can manifest in many different ways. Below, you can find a comprehensive list of the most common examples of unethical behavior in the workplace, by type.

Misleading communications[17] [18] [19] (Minor/moderate form of unethical behavior and society targeted)

  • Advertising a product/service feature that does not exist;
  • Making misleading claims to clients or suppliers;
  • Omitting facts so that the inferences about a product/service are different from reality;
  • Exploiting, without making any explicit or implied claims, an existing false belief about the performance of a product/service;
  • Creating unrealistic expectations with deceptive marketing practices;
  • Raising prices temporarily to subsequently apply a pseudo-promotion/discount;
  • Overpricing products and services.
Fraudulent behavior[17] (Severe form of unethical behavior and society targeted)

  • Evading taxes;
  • Bribing other companies or governmental agencies;
  • Fabricating or manipulating quality reports and safety tests;
  • Violating or ignoring environmental regulations;
  • Doing business with third parties that do not follow local and international regulations (human rights, for example);
  • Sharing false information with regulators;
  • Endangering clients by keep selling a faulty product or service.

Anti-competitive activity[20] [21] [22] (Severe form of unethical behavior and society targeted)

  • Price fixing (discussing and fixing prices to be charged to consumers with competitors);
  • Bid rigging (discussing and biasing bids for a contract by, for example, winning contracts in turns, withdrawing bids, or making unreasonably high bids for a competitor to win);
  • Market sharing (agreeing with competitors the markets and customers that each one tackles);
  • Information sharing that might reduce the competition (price, stock, market, and plans, for example);
  • Abusing a dominant market position by selling at a loss to drive competition out;
  • Agreeing with competitors to limit production with the intention of raising prices.

Production deviance[23] [24] [25] [26] (Minor/moderate form of unethical behavior and organization targeted)

  • Dragging out work to get overtime payment;
  • Claiming more overtime hours than you worked;
  • Making mistakes at work on purpose;
  • Dragging out work to miss important deadlines;
  • Purposely leaving work unfinished so that someone else has to finish it;
  • Distracting colleagues instead of working;
  • Complaining about unimportant issues at work;
  • Being nasty to clients;
  • Covering up mistakes with lies;
  • Pretending not to know how to do something to avoid a reasonable work request;
  • Failing to keep up to date records of your input (for example, your text edits, lines of code added to an app, changes in a machine configuration).

Withdrawal[27] [28] (Minor/moderate form of unethical behavior and organization targeted)

  • Taking excessive personal time for lunch, breaks, and other personal deeds;
  • Daydreaming excessively;
  • Pretending to be unwell (call in sick just to take a day off, for example);
  • Taking an unreasonable time to do a job;
  • Working on personal matters during normal work time;
  • Coming late to work or finishing the day early consistently and without reasonable justification;
  • Playing online or computer games while at work;
  • Being aware of a colleague’s unethical behavior and failing to address the issue (gather evidence, talk with the person, report the issue, for example).

Knowledge hiding[29] [30] (Minor/moderate form of unethical behavior and organization targeted)

  • Playing dumb: Pretending that you are not very knowledgeable about something, that you do not understand the question posed, or that you know nothing about the requested information;
  • Evasive hiding: Sharing knowledge other than the one requested, sharing incorrect or incomplete information, agreeing to help but never actually doing it, providing misleading promises of future assistance;
  • Rationalized hiding: Justifying one’s knowledge hiding with deceptive regulations, supervisors’ rules, and confidentiality concerns.

In the video below, Professor Catherine Connelly (from McMaster University) explains why knowledge hiding is a problematic behavior at work.

Property deviance and sabotage[23] [31] [32] (Severe form of unethical behavior and organization targeted)

  • Taking property from the organization without permission;
  • Wasting organizational property (materials, services, and supplies, for example);
  • Damaging, on purpose, the organization’s equipment, services, or property;
  • Placing, on purpose, false or inaccurate information to derail decision-making in the organization;
  • Destroying or falsifying important organizational documents;
  • Falsifying receipts to get reimbursements of nonexistent expenses;
  • Using personal receipts to get reimbursed for business expenses;
  • Helping others to take property from the organization.

Political deviance[15] [33] (Minor/moderate form of unethical behavior and other employees targeted)

  • Showing favoritism to people who are important for personal goals;
  • Gossiping and undermining others to gain personal advantage;
  • Creating personal connections with others to push them to work beyond job description;
  • Giving or accepting gifts in exchange for special treatment;
  • Exploiting peers’ networks for personal gain;
  • Competing with colleagues instead of working collaboratively;
  • Claiming credit for a colleague’s work;
  • Putting forth less effort than colleagues.

Ostracism[34] (Minor/moderate form of unethical behavior and other employees targeted)

  • Ignoring or avoiding a colleague at work;
  • Shutting out a colleague during conversations;
  • Not replying to a colleague’s greetings, phone-calls, or emails;
  • Giving the silent treatment to a colleague;
  • Acting as if a colleague is not present in the room;
  • Refusing to talk to a colleague at work;
  • Leaving a room when a colleague comes in;
  • Ignoring a colleague’s inputs in a work debate/meeting.

Interpersonal deviance[16] [23] [35] (Severe form of unethical behavior and other employees targeted)

  • Making fun of, embarrassing, or making hurtful comments to a colleague;
  • Cursing at or being rude to a colleague;
  • Playing unwanted and mean pranks to a colleague;
  • Making mean gender, ethnic, or religious comments to a colleague;
  • Littering a colleague’s workspace;
  • Starting or feeding harmful rumors about a colleague;
  • Blaming a colleague for personal mistakes;
  • Starting unreasonable arguments with a colleague;
  • Making a colleague’s life difficult at work;
  • Undermining the efforts of a colleague;
  • Putting down a colleague;
  • Pushing a colleague to discuss personal issues.

Aggression[36] (Severe form of unethical behavior and other employees targeted)

  • Hitting a colleague at work;
  • Physically or psychologically threatening a colleague;
  • Insulting a colleague at work;
  • Making obscene gestures to a colleague;
  • Engaging in threatening eye contact (aggressive staring, for example);
  • Destroying the private property of a colleague;
  • Sabotaging the organizational resources a colleague needs to work;
  • Purposefully breaking your colleague’s working tools;
  • Failing to alert a colleague of an immediate danger;
  • Endangering a colleague at work.

Bullying/mobbing[37] (Severe form of unethical behavior and other employees targeted)

  • Consistently ignoring, humiliating, or ridiculing a colleague at work;
  • Making, on a systematic way, offensive remarks and unfounded allegations about a colleague;
  • Repeatedly reminding and criticizing a colleague’s past mistakes and errors at work;
  • Unfairly accusing or blaming a colleague for something that went wrong at work;
  • Persistently pointing out that a colleague is, in your view, incompetent and should quit his/her job;
  • Excessively monitoring a colleague’s work;
  • Pressuring someone, directly or indirectly, to withhold their rights (such as travel expenses, sick leave);
  • Allocating an unreasonable amount of work to a colleague at work, or setting unreachable deadlines and performance expectations;
  • Consistently discharging personal frustrations on a colleague.

In the video below, Dr. Gary Namie (from the Workplace Bullying Institute) highlights the behaviors of the four most common bully types that you may find at work:

Abusive leadership[38] [39] [40] (Severe form of unethical behavior and other employees targeted)

  • Yelling at supervisees;
  • Ridiculing, blaming, making negative comments, being rude, and putting supervisees down;
  • Influencing supervisees through threats and intimidation;
  • Humiliating supervisees when they fail to reach a desired standard;
  • Treating supervisees as competitors or inferiors rather than colleagues/partners;
  • Encouraging or pressing supervisees to engage in unethical behavior – to take longer brakes or to falsify reports, for example;
  • Lying and breaking promises made to supervisees;
  • Isolating supervisees by not allowing contact with others or by blocking access to important information;
  • Intentionally providing inaccurate or false information to supervisees;
  • Ignoring and diminishing the inputs of supervisees;
  • Undermining supervisees’ efforts at work.

Alcohol and drug use/abuse[41] [42] (Minor/moderate to severe form of unethical behavior and self targeted)

  • Using illegal drugs at work;
  • Using legal or recreational drugs that severely limit productivity and ability to work;
  • Being unable to perform normally due to alcohol or drug hangover;
  • Consuming alcohol on the job.

Unsafe behavior[42] (Severe form of unethical behavior and self targeted)

  • Neglecting to follow safety instructions;
  • Failing to read safety instructions/manuals;
  • Endangering yourself, coworkers, or customers by ignoring safety procedures;
  • Discussing confidential information with unauthorized people.

Nine impressive statistics on the incidence of unethical behavior in the workplace

Unethical behavior in the workplace is far from being an anomaly. In reality, multiple research studies indicate that unethical behavior can be pervasive and frequent in many organizations. Here is a compilation of nine impressive statistics on the incidence of unethical behavior at work.

Abusive leadership and its rippling effects

Abusive leadership is a form of unethical behavior that affects about 11% of workers in the Netherlands[43], 14% of the US workforce[44], and 34% of workers in Norway[38].

Knowing that people who are subjected to abusive leaders tend to retaliate by engaging in unethical actions against their organization, leaders, colleagues, or customers[45] [46] is an additional reason to worry.

In fact, abusive leaders can increase the rate of unethical behavior in organizations way beyond their own actions, as they contribute to a work environment conductive of unethical behavior.

Up to 1/3 of workers are affected by abusive leadership

Some bosses are bullies, but not all bullies are bosses

Large scale studies show that between 10% and 19% of workers, both in Europe and North America, have recently been victims of bullying at work[3] [47] [48] [49].

Bosses, direct supervisors, and other higher ranks tend to be the primary source of bullying at work – they account for 65% of bullying reports[3]. Hence the expression “bully boss”. Importantly, however, more than one third of bullying at work (35%) is made by peers and by subordinates.

This suggests that in order to truly tackle the problem of workplace bullying we must pay close attention to all sources of bullying at work: higher ranks, equals, and lower ranks.

If you behave unethically once, you most likely will do it again

About 67% of those who behave unethically once end up doing it repeatedly[50].

Those who engage in an ongoing pattern of unethical behavior may have a faulty character, but may also be subjected to higher and more consistent pressures to misbehave at work. In fact, individual characteristics and organizational environments are among the strongest forces pushing people towards unethical behavior at work[6].

Importantly, researchers have found that those who remind themselves of their past misbehavior[51] and those who reflect on the morality of their actions[52], tend to take restorative measures for their past deeds and restrain from engaging in further unethical behavior.

Most of us have witnessed unethical workplace behavior

47% of American workers have witnessed someone behaving unethically in the last year[50], and 81% of Nordic workers (Norway, Finland, and Sweden) can easily recall observing at least an episode of unethical behavior in their work life[4].

This incidence of unethical behavior at work is estimated to cost organizations worldwide more than $4.5 trillions per year[1].

While large corporate scandals catch our attention, everyone can potentially misbehave at work, even if they are committed to follow high moral and ethical standards[53] [54].

Personal life choices matter for how ethical we are at work

Some people are more prone to behave unethically than others, and some work environments are more likely to cause unethical behavior than others[6].

Nevertheless, the most consistent red flag for unethical behavior is living beyond means[1]. Indeed, 42% of people who were found engaging in unethical behavior were living beyond their means.

Thus, a substantial amount of unethical behavior at work is due to the choices we make in our personal life, not to the demands of our work.

Pressures, unethical behaviors, and professional roles

Large scale studies depict an interesting picture on how unethical are top managers and employees without a management role[1] [55].

On the one hand, although top managers feel twice the pressure to behave unethically, they are only responsible for approximately 20% of the unethical behavior detected in the workplace. On the other hand, although the remaining employees are accountable for about 80% of the unethical behavior detected in organizations, the losses they provoke tend to be ten times smaller, compared to the losses provoked by top managers.

The media tends to highlight the expensive cases of unethical behavior perpetrated by top managers. However, many of us commit, intentionally or unintentionally, less expensive acts on a daily basis. Accepting that all of us can fail ethically is the first step towards showing integrity at work.

As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined

Engagement in unethical behavior appears to start early in life, as more than half of high school students in the US acknowledge that they have behaved unethically during their studies (for example, by cheating in exams or lying to teachers)[56].

This statistic is particularly troubling since unethical high-school students are up to three times more likely to lack integrity later in life compared to ethical high-schoolers[57] [58].

The patterns we adopt early in life are likely to continue, unless we take action. Keeping in mind the values, principles, and morals that sustain our integrity in difficult and tempting times is a great starting point to break our questionable patterns.

The ethical patterns we adopt early in life are likely to continue in adulthood

Undetected unethical behavior is costly

Using complex statistical methods, researchers have recently found that one out of nine large companies in the US commit undetected fraud every year; and that four out of ten violate accounting rules at least once during a business cycle[59].

This undetected fraud has an annual cost of $275 billion dollars, just in the US.

Such incidence of unethical behavior highlights the importance of having a system in place that promotes adherence to ethical standards and the importance of defining unambiguous, fair, and ethical policies. In fact, research has found that people in organizations with ethical policies written in an unclear and obfuscated way tend to commit more ethical infractions that those with clear and unambiguous policies[60].

Small unethical behaviors, large costs

Small employee thefts and dishonest behaviors can sum up to large amounts and have serious consequences.

For example, according to the Centre for Retail Research, employee theft in the UK retail sector costed £1.305 millions (about $1.82 millions) just in 2019[61]. In the US, each case of dishonest behavior costed, on average, $1,139.32 to retail organizations in 2019[62]. Globally, in 2015, employee theft was responsible for 39% of retail shrinkage (defined as the difference between book inventory and the actual physical inventory). See the video below for additional statistics on this.

Training, codes of conduct, anonymous telephone and online notification systems, and moral reminders are interventions that have been found to be effective in reducing unethical behavior at work, and that most retail companies are currently adopting[62] [63].

Conclusion

Intentionally or unintentionally, we can all end up engaging in unethical behavior at work.

With all the labels used to describe unethical workplace behavior, it can be challenging to know how to act ethically at work and when are we crossing ethical boundaries.

Being aware of what unethical behavior is and how prevalent it is, and understanding the different types and manifestations of unethical behavior, is going to help us maintain or even strengthen our moral compass at work.

As always, we thank you for trusting your time with ManagingLifeAtWork.com. Until next time, keep an eye on the multiple manifestations of unethical behavior at work.

References and further reading

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