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Shape a desirable workplace—even with undesirable employees

Carl R. Oliver (carl.oliver@lmu.edu) is Senior Lecturer for the College of Business Administration, Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, California, USA.

A recent magazine article headlined “Jaw-dropping study: Executives who manipulate earnings are hired for their lack of ethics”[1] steered readers to psychology research. In a laboratory experiment, when a company felt pressure to “manage earnings” (i.e., unethically inflate earnings reports), recruiters tended to recommend—and experienced executives tended to hire—candidates with undesirable personality traits. The authors noted this is usually seen as an accidental byproduct of hiring strong leaders, but they concluded some organizations purposely hire managers willing to “push ethical boundaries.”[2]

The research focused on traits, usually defined as genetic characteristics impossible for an individual to change at will. But the observable effects attributed to those traits are behaviors like ethics and leadership that individuals often change at will. Understanding this distinction between traits and behaviors is critical to successful corporate business ethics programs.

Similar to the hiring process, companies that promote managers who get results sometimes appear to ignore repeated complaints about the behaviors those managers exhibited to get those results. It may be that senior managers in the loop for promotions do not routinely monitor behavior complaints, and people who handle behavior complaints are not in the promotion coordination loop to begin with.

So what is the reason behind the hiring and promoting of individuals who have exhibited undesirable traits and behaviors? One explanation is that there is a purposeful intent to use these unethical people to benefit the organization. But nothing in the research indicates recruiters or corporate executives who operate in real-world hiring or promotion situations are even aware of the undesirable traits, much less trying to detect or measure them. A second explanation would be that there is an inadvertent outcome of selecting candidates for the positive aspects of behaviors such as confidence, creativity, and an aggressive pursuit of business opportunities. The steps in the hiring or promotion process likely do not make visible any negative aspects of these same behaviors; thus, hiring or promoting people with undesirable personalities may be an unintentional result of the process. A third explanation might be the influence of the organizational culture. That is, a candidate may show desirable behaviors and fit well in the organization’s existing corporate culture, but depending on the health of this environment, undesirable traits may remain hidden.

Even small companies usually have employees who have some undesirable personality traits—perhaps hidden from plain view—that could potentially surface in the form of an ethics violation. This article explores that reality and what a company can do to help such employees avoid ethics violations and foster their productivity and success.

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