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Distance: a surprising way to keep your company ethical

Afstand bewaren: een middel om een bedrijf ethisch te houden

It is often assumed that unethical behaviour at the top ‘trickles down’ to lower levels in organisations. However, if middle managers keep their distance from misbehaving bosses, they can prevent unethical behaviour from dripping down through the organisation and break the top-down chain of unethical guidance, according to new research by Gijs van Houwelingen of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). So companies that want to be moralistic shouldn’t only look to the top layer of management for guidance.

One of the issues that companies are faced with when trying to maintain an ethical culture is that people often subconsciously copy the behaviour of others. This effect is especially pronounced when these others are important role-models, like organizational leaders. So, when top management misbehaves, unwanted behaviour may spread throughout the organization. This is why Van Houwelingen became interested in the factors that help top-level misbehaviour from spreading. Middle managers, as it turns out, can be seen as the most important gatekeeper against the spread of unethical behaviour from the top.

Surprisingly, up to now higher interpersonal distance has mostly been seen as an impediment to safeguarding the ethical climate of the organizations. For instance, distance may make employees think they can get away with fraud or theft. However, as Gijs van Houwelingen shows, there are indeed unexpected virtues of distance: it may help prevent misbehaviour from spreading throughout the organization. Organization should thus strive to manage distance: levels of management should neither be too close or too distant from each other.

Van Houwelingen’s research reveals that distance plays an important part in either rejecting or copying unethical behaviour demonstrated by a misbehaving supervisor or top-level manager. Distance provides a form of ‘insulation’ against the influence of higher-level misbehaviour. In other words: The closer an employee feels to their boss, the more likely they are to subconsciously mirror the behaviour. When distance is larger, this effect diminishes or even reverses: when the distance between middle managers and the top is sufficiently big middle managers were found to be more likely to contrast top-level misbehaviour. They actually became fairer once confronted with a boss behaving unethically.

Gijs van Houwelingen explains what you can do to keep your company on the right side in this RSM Discovery video:

Distance may mean here simply physical proximity or remoteness such as sharing an office, sitting at adjacent desks, being on the same floor or building or being on the same rung of the hierarchical ladder. Or it can mean psychological or social distance; having empathy for someone, being able to relate to that person, or feeling like part of the same team. In fact, the research shows that physical distance often translates into social or psychological distance; we are better able to relate with those that are (physically) closer to us.

Physical distance can simply be created by seating staff in separate buildings or on different floors. Psychological distance can be maintained by keeping a degree of formality in interpersonal interactions. Van Houwelingen also recommends avoiding that people only identify with their superior. Middle managers and members of staff with responsibilities to several managers and who look for mentoring to several mentors find it easier to find a good moral compass to follow, he says.

Van Houwelingen conducted this research in collaboration with Marius Van Dijke, endowed professor of behavioural ethics at Rotterdam School of Management, and David de Cremer, KPMG chair of management studies at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. The paper entitled ‘Fairness Enactment as Response to Higher Level Unfairness: The Roles of Self-Construal and Spatial Distance’ has been published online by the Journal of Management and will appear in print sometime in 2016. 

Caught on the wrong side of ethics in business
Ethics in business is the major feature of the Summer 2015 issue of RSM Outlook magazine, available online from 20 May. Three features in the magazine present three perspectives; on being led astray by cultural and behavioural dynamics; a view of ethics and integrity management by someone who got caught on the wrong side; and what the recent prominence of ethics means for business.

More information

For more information about RSM or on this release, please contact Olivia Manders, Media Officer on +31 10 408 2028 or by email at manders@rsm.nl.