Behaviorial Integrity and Corporate Culture

Inconsistencies in Words and Actions Impact Employee Satisfaction

Freidman_1Ray Friedman, Brownlee O. Currey Professor of Management, has spent years investigating racial differences in reaction to injustice, and how people from different ethnic groups respond to perceived or actual mistreatment in the workplace. As an outgrowth of this earlier research, he was approached by Tony Simons of Cornell University to examine this phenomenon as it applies to behavioral integrity. Along with colleagues Leigh Anne Liu of Georgia State University and Judi McLean Parks of Washington University in St. Louis, they embarked on a study to determine whether sensitivity to behavioral integrity varied among employees of various racial groups (“Racial differences in sensitivity to behavioral integrity: Attitudinal consequences, in-group effects, and ‘trickle down’ among black and non-black employees,” Journal of Applied Psychology, May 2007).

PHOTO: Dr. Ray Friedman, Brownlee O. Currey Professor of Management (Organization Studies)

“We hypothesized that a subset of employees—black employees—are going to be more aware of and sensitive to injustices and to a boss not showing behavioral integrity—or, word-action consistency,” Friedman says. “And, in fact, that’s what we found.”

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Unless managers make a conscious effort to be consistent, they can easily get caught in the behavioral integrity trap.   For example, a corporate executive may exhort the need to produce high quality goods, but he sets the piece-rate so high that it becomes impossible for workers to meet their quota and also attend to details. Or, a manager may be a vocal cheerleader for teamwork, but he rewards the employee who goes off on his own to work on a pet project, forcing the other team members to pull extra weight.

Such breaches between stated ideals and overt actions corrode the work environment, the researchers say. They tested their theory using data from 1,944 employees working at 107 different hotels, and found a correlation between supervisors receiving low scores on behavioral integrity and line employees measuring low on trust, job satisfaction, contributions to the workplace, and intent to remain on the job. What’s more, low behavioral integrity tended to shape the culture of the entire workforce. In addition to line employees, Friedman, et al., also asked mid-level managers to rate the behavioral integrity of top management. The results point to a pattern.

“One of the key predictors of whether a line employee sees his mid-manager as being low on behavioral integrity is whether that mid-manager sees his boss as low on behavioral integrity,” Friedman says. “In other words, if people are seeing their boss act badly, it empowers them to treat the employees who report to them badly, as well.” Unprincipled behaviors are thereby legitimized. The higher up they begin, the further they will trickle down throughout the organization.

Although low behavioral integrity at the managerial level negatively affected all line employees, black workers were particularly sensitive to the problem. The researchers specifically looked at cases where employees of different races reported to a common manager and their data clearly indicate a distinction along racial lines.

“There are historical incidences that help to explain why black employees would be highly sensitized to authority figures lying, for example, and why they’d be more aware of their bosses’ bad behavior,” Friedman says.

One explanation involves the long-lasting effects of past lies to black people in America.  In the most blatant example, poor black men in rural Alabama were told that they were being treated for syphilis, but actually did not receive appropriate medications, so researchers could watch how the disease developed.  This study (the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 1932-1972), is still widely discussed in the black community and has led many to distrust medical research. Likewise, throughout the decades there have been several instances of corporations recruiting black workers, then subsequently passing them over for promotions, or claiming to give black customers good deals while actually charging them higher rates for car loans. All of which has amplified African-American reflexes to notice incongruities between words and action.

As a result, Friedman argues, black employees may interpret certain actions as more threatening than do non-blacks. He likens the situation to two people passing by a dog. If one has been bitten by a dog in the past and the other one hasn’t, then one will see the dog as potentially threatening while the other will not.

The researchers did have one finding that was opposite of what was expected: they were surprised to find that black employees were more critical of black managers than of non-black managers who exhibited poor conduct, and that non-black employees went easier than their black colleagues on black bosses they shared in common.

Friedman says that research suggests that people place a greater stake in others acting honorably if they are being represented by those individuals.  In other words, humans tend to favor those who are part of their in-group, unless they are embarrassed or mistreated by them. At that point, members of the in-group react that much more viscerally and angrily to bad behavior.

“The assumption is that black employees who see a black manager acting badly are especially upset by it—maybe because they hold the black manager to a higher standard, or maybe because they believe it reflects badly on them all,” he reasons.

Friedman is now making plans to study cross-cultural variances in behavioral integrity, looking at whether breaches of behavioral integrity in the workplace affect Asians and westerners differently.

Perhaps most importantly, the data revealed by these studies have direct implications to employers trying to build a positive work environment in their companies. The take-away lessons from this research can be boiled down to the following:

  1. Actions must be consistent with words, mottos, and policies or employers will lose the support of their employees.
  2. Bad behavior being carried out by those at the top of the company does not stay within the boardroom, but spreads throughout the organization.
  3. If employers have an employee base that includes black jobholders, expect those employees to have higher expectations for honest and considerate behavior by their managers.
  4. Black employers must be cognizant of and prepare for the strong likelihood that th