You don’t have to look very hard to find examples of corporate executives lying, cheating, and stealing to benefit themselves and their companies — recent history is strewn with them. But when individual higher-ups engage in this sort of behavior, and they act alone, to what extent does their behavior affect perceptions of the entire company, potentially harming employees who had nothing to do with the bad acts in question?
The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest runs down a study, recently published in Personality Science, whose authors sought to better understand these dynamics. Stanford psychology researchers Takuya Sawaoka and Benoît Monin ran a series of online experiments in which they asked respondents to imagine their responses to scenarios involving corrupt workers at different levels within a company. Overall, “When the culprit’s position in the company was senior rather than low-ranking, participants were more likely to see his behaviour as representative and go on to make assumptions about other dodgy company practices,” Research Digest notes.
Even when this conclusion is unwarranted, it makes a certain degree of psychological sense — higher-level employees are often seen as the faces of companies. But, at least in this experimental setting, there are signs that people may over-extrapolate based on their behavior: “Sawaoka and Monin also show that where participants bristle at employees working under the corrupt, they are also … less prepared to give a work referral to a hypothetical employee exiting such a company to seek work elsewhere.”
So the moral here is to not work for a company where a major corruption scandal is going to explode during your tenure. Practical advice!