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Can Top Performers Get Away with More?

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Recently, I read a Fast Company article  that highlighted a Baylor University study that suggested employers are more willing to accept unethical behavior from employees who perform well in their roles. The study also suggested that the misconduct of poor performers is not likely to be tolerated.

Similar to the results in the workplace environment, there is a belief that top performers in sports are also given a “pass” for misconduct. Stories about professional athletes with drug addictions, legal issues and other disruptive behavior have shown these top players are sometimes allowed to continue playing their sports because they can help their respective teams win games.

But, America is changing – in the workplace and with sports.

In recent years, multiple athletes with domestic violence charges were cut from their teams or identified as players other teams refused to sign with. This shows leaders, especially in sports, are realizing the importance of the chemistry of a locker room or business unit, which can be significantly disrupted when unethical behavior from professional athletes or employees is ignored.

In contrast to the findings of this study, I believe the vast majority of companies would not tolerate unethical behavior. Research from the Ethics and Compliance Initiative showed the following:

  • 67% of companies now measure ethical behavior as a part of performance evaluations
  • 81% of companies provide ethics training to their employees
  • 74% of companies communicate internally about disciplinary actions when wrongdoing occurs

These findings demonstrate that companies do value ethical behavior and monitor the conduct of their employees, which is why I question the notion suggested by the Baylor study that unethical employees can be classified as high performers.

Making ethics a top priority – pays off – literally. In 1997, Curtis Verschoor of DePaul University published a study that revealed 27% of Fortune 500 companies emphasized their commitment to ethical behavior in the annual reports for their shareholders. The financial performance of that 27% segment of companies ranked higher than companies who did not address their commitment to ethics. These results show that unethical behavior will never be a part of a long-standing successful business model.

The way company leaders respond to the discovery of unethical behavior says a lot about the values of the organization. The author of the Baylor study, Matthew Quade, stated he “recommends swift discipline for unethical behavior, coupled with deliberately staffing leadership roles with ethical people, in order to set an example.”

Choosing to part ways with unethical employees or taking corrective action to prevent future misconduct, communicates to others that conducting business with integrity is more important than achieving profits through unethical means.

Interested in learning more about what it means to be an ethical leader? Click here for more information.

Always remember, Leadership is a Lifestyle.

Ryan W. Hirsch
Operations Manager, NASBA Center for the Public Trust (CPT)