U01: Party to This

It could have been worse. I didn’t work for Enron or Uber. I was never asked to do anything illegal, and didn’t witness anything illegal or grossly unethical. Yes, it could have been worse.

But it still wasn’t good. I had long felt some murky undertones in the ethical climate of my department. I noticed the tendency to treat employees as slightly sub-human. I heard of plans to frequently change employees’ schedules just to remind everyone that they were controlled, that the department held power over them and could move them like pawns as they chose. We all saw decisions that proved, day after day, that the company drove for profit above all else, regardless of the human toll. It was this environment that I wanted to change, and what drew me to join the leadership team. I thought I would have a better chance at making change from the inside. But this also made me, by association, one of the perpetrators of the practices I disliked. When decisions came “from management,” that meant me now too. So what do you do when your sense of ethics doesn’t match that of the team around you, especially on a leadership team? 

From the inside, I was privy to the thought processes of the other members of the leadership team, up to our executive director. I observed how quickly some jumped to lie to employees when they didn’t feel like explaining the truth. It was shockingly common for a manager to roll in late, then later that same day reprimand an employee for tardiness. Employees found the management team “shady.” Simply by being part of that team, I couldn’t fully separate myself from that. 

I recognized my situation in the following: “Leaders are in a unique situation of being involved in both their own personal ethical codes as well as the culture of the organization (a microcosm of society), so their own personal ethics are not always easily distinguished from that of the organization” (PSU, 2019a). I felt my own ethics getting eclipsed by the team around me. However, I still hoped to be able to make a difference.

I bore in mind the quote from Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I didn’t blame anyone for their actions, thinking perhaps they didn’t know that things could be better. Of the theories of moral development, Kohlberg’s theory of cognitive moral development describes the situation well. I would have placed the decision making of some of my colleagues in his preconventional level, in which one chooses his or her course of action based on what will supply personal rewards while avoiding punishment (Ambrose, Arnaud & Schminke, 2008). Above this is the conventional level, in which behavior is chosen to meet the expectations of others and society (Ambrose, Arnaud & Schminke, 2008). Finally, there remains the post conventional level, wherein individuals follow their own moral path aiming toward just societies (Ambrose, Arnaud & Schminke, 2008). I thought, perhaps, that if I could show there was a better way to lead, that we could move the collective meter of the leadership team up out of the preconventional level of moral development in which we often operated. 

Unfortunately, this did not turn out to be the case. I reminded myself of the differences in cognition, the way each person thinks (PSU, 2019b). I knew that I saw different things, thought different ways, and even had a different set of values. Yet as time wore on, the ethical mismatch made me increasingly uncomfortable. Research has examined the relationship between an individual’s moral development and the ethical climate of their workplace. Regarding this ethical climate, a study by Ambrose, Arnaud & Schminke (2008) showed that “employees with a higher level of congruence between their preferred and perceived climate showed lower turnover intentions and higher commitment” (p. 326). I was feeling the effects of the reverse, as my commitment to the organization sagged while turnover intention increased. 

In the end, I felt I could no longer be party to this. I could not, in good conscience, tacitly endorse the actions of the management team by remaining part of it. There were other factors that contributed to my departure from the organization, but this one played a major role. This experience taught me to be careful when signing onto a leadership role, and to evaluate the ethical level of decisions being made. I realize that there are no perfect people and no perfect organizations, but is it possible to avoid such a mismatch in the future? I hope so. Should I have stayed and continued to work for change? Maybe. That question still haunts me.

The situation could have been worse. But it could have been better. I wanted to make it better, but feared that I continued to hurt as I tried to help. I couldn’t satisfactorily raise the cognitive moral development of my team. I couldn’t reconcile the difference between what I thought was right and what was happening. I don’t know if I did the right thing when my sense of ethics clashed with the team around me. But if anything good came of it, the experience continues to push me to work for change, to work for the good, and to make myself better so that in the future I can do better.  


Ambrose, M.L., Arnoud, A. & Schminke, M. (2008, February). Individual moral development and ethical climate: The influence of person- organization fit on job attitudes. Journal of Business Ethics, 77(3), 323-333. Retrieved from https://link-springer-com.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/article/10.1007%2Fs10551-007-9352-1

Pennsylvania State University. (2019a). PSY 833: L01 Unethical Leadership. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1963919/pages/l01-unethical-leadership?module_item_id=25808367

Pennsylvania State University. (2019b). PSY 833: L04 Cognition. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1963919/pages/l04-cognition?module_item_id=25808398

Townsend, T. (2016). Uber is currently facing more than 70 lawsuits in federal court. Retrieved from https://slate.com/business/2016/07/uber-is-fighting-more-than-70-lawsuits-in-federal-court.html

One Comment

  1. Jessica Marie Maher February 10, 2019 at 7:43 PM #

    Hi Holly – thank you so much for sharing your experience. The company that you previously worked for sounds awful and it is easy to see how this could take a toll on you. I am so glad you got out of there to protect our own mental health. I know in my own experience, being a level-line employee, there is usually a sense of mistrust and the idea that you aren’t always getting the full story. Once you are in management and you see how true that really is, it’s a hard pill to swallow. I wouldn’t feel good with playing with people’s livelihoods, like changing their schedules just because they could. According to Northouse (2019), the principles of ethical leadership include respecting others, serving others, showing justice, being honest, and helping to build a community. It is clear in the organization you are referencing that the management staff did not do this. It is commendable that you tried to raise the standards of the organization but unfortunately culture change is a slow and tiring process. It often takes years to move the culture of a company even a few steps and even then, it needs the support of leadership at all levels to push for that. What types of things would you do to question the unethical behaviors of the leadership around you? What were their responses? I would imagine being out casted for not partaking in the bullying nature of the staff. This could have also lead to disengagement and morale being lowered since that sense of community would be decreasing. Moore, et al (2019) found that unethical leadership behaviors also can lead to employees partaking in deviant behavior and make unethical decisions. I have dealt with situations in the past where I believe someone in a higher position’s ethical views conflicted with my own in my current organization and it is definitely a touchy subject to bring to the table. Depending on who it is, sometimes I get nervous of their reaction and try to cover all bases to be prepared before meeting with them to express my concerns. Sometimes I am shut down and other times they do see my point of view. While discouraging to be shut down, I usually feel better about at least saying something especially since then it can never come back to me that I didn’t bring up my concerns if it did happen to blow up later. Again, thanks for much for sharing your experience!

    Moore, C., Mayer, D. M., Chiang, F. F. T., Crossley, C., Karlesky, M. J., & Birtch, T. A. (2019). Leaders matter morally: The role of ethical leadership in shaping employee moral cognition and misconduct. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(1), 123-145. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/10.1037/apl0000341

    Northouse, P. G. (2019). Leadership: Theory and practice. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

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