Award-Winning Research Studies Effects of Stress
on Job Ethics

Justice Tillman

Employees afraid of losing their jobs may be more likely to engage in unethical behavior, according to an award-winning study that looked at how stress can diminish someone’s ability to regulate his thoughts when faced with ethical dilemmas.

Dr. C. Justice Tillman, a clinical assistant professor of organizations, strategy and international management in the Naveen Jindal School of Management, and his co-authors won a best-paper award for the study from the Southern Management Association. A regional affiliate of the Academy of Management, the association presented the award November 1 at its 2012 meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

In “How Do Feelings of Job Insecurity Impact Employee Engagement in Unethical Behaviors?” Tillman and colleagues Dr. Ericka Ruggs Lawrence of East Carolina University, and Dr. K. Michele Kacmar of the University of Alabama, extended previous ethical decision-making research by examining the psychological processes behind decision-making.

“The constant threat of losing one’s job will create anxiety and emotional exhaustion in employees,” Tillman said. Then they “may be tempted to disengage their moral compass and engage in unethical acts that benefit the organization in an effort to keep their jobs.” An example of a beneficial unethical act he noted would be overcharging a client — it would be unprincipled, but it would not sabotage the employer.

Interestingly, Tillman said, “we found that this process occurs with employees that are experiencing emotional exhaustion, but not with employees that experience anxiety.”

The researchers developed a model that explains how and under what circumstances people are likely to engage in unethical behaviors. Results from a sample of 107 engineers and architects confirmed the authors’ belief that job insecurity increases emotional exhaustion and anxiety and “impacts an individual’s ability to regulate their moral compass,” Tillman said.

Tillman said the study might be able to help organizations provide an environment that supports, rather than excludes, employees who are experiencing job insecurity.

“One way of accomplishing this is by being transparent in communications with employees when considering layoffs,” Tillman said. “Organizations also can communicate the procedures that are being undertaken in the organizations’ decision-making process if restructuring is being considered.”