Moral Disengagement and Unethical Behavior at Work

Adam Barsky

University of Melbourne


Streams P, Q, and T
Moral Disengagement and Unethical Behavior at Work

            A central thesis of in a segment of the management literature on business ethics is that those committing corrupt acts in organizations are often no more ill-intentioned than those who lead saintly organizational lives. Indeed, Colman (1987) stated that “almost all studies have agreed on one point: White-collar offenders are psychologically ‘normal’” (p. 178). Therefore, this dissertation focuses away from the problem of identifying and weeding out the “immoral” people who are engaging in organizational wrongdoing by operating under the assumption that most people who do wrong are not inherently bad (e.g., Bersoff, 1998). Instead, unethical behavior may often be the result of breakdowns in individuals’ moral reasoning.

Over the previous two decades, a number of frameworks have been proposed as models for understanding the reasoning or decision-making processes underlying moral (or immoral) behavior (e.g., Rest, 1986; Trevino, 1986). Jones’s (1991) issue-contingent model is often cited as a comprehensive synthesis model of ethical decision-making (e.g., Street, Douglas, Geiger, & Martinko, 2001), and has been used to guide a number of theoretical and empirical studies (see Loe, Ferrell, & Mansfield, 2000;). Jones’s (1991) model provides a useful heuristic framework for understanding the processes individuals go through when deciding to engage in ethical behavior. However, the model is incomplete in the discussion of reasoning processes that occur when individuals decide to act unethically. To fill this void, I will draw on Bandura’s (1997, 1999) social cognitive theory of moral disengagement and Sykes and Matza’s (1957) neutralization theory. To date, while the concept of moral disengagement through rationalization has been discussed, no research has empirically measured moral disengagement or linked it to unethical behavior.  The remainder of the paper will unfold as follows.  First, Jones’ (1991) general model of ethical decision-making will be described, followed by a detailed discussion of how moral disengagement relates to unethical behavior. Next, two studies, a simulation study and a survey study, which link moral disengagement to unethical behavior will be described. The paper will conclude with a discussion of current research findings, and directions for future studies.  

The foundation of Jones’s (1991) model lies in Rest’s (1986) multi-stage model, whereby individuals are argued to move through a series of sequentially ordered steps during the course of making a decision to act ethically or unethically (e.g., Jones, 1991). In the first step, the terms “ethical recognition” and “moral awareness” are often used interchangeably in reference to individuals’ recognition that their decision or action will harm or help others, and that they have some volition in acting or making a decision. Once a problem is recognized as moral, decision-makers enter the second step wherein they reason that acting morally is warranted and, therefore, resolve to place moral concerns above other concerns. This process is referred to as establishing moral or ethical intent. The steps (i.e., ethical recognition, ethical judgment, and ethical intent) in ethical decision-making scenarios act as a script, which, when activated, ultimately increase the probability of ethical behavior. In addition, this decision-making script functions such that the activation of a prior step usually precedes the activation of future steps.

Moral Disengagement and the Use of Rationalizations

As suggested above, this manuscript presupposes that most wrongdoers in organizations are psychologically “normal,” in the sense that they see themselves as fair, moral, and honest (Allison, Messick, & Goethals, 1989). Given that individuals typically imagine themselves as moral people, one would expect that, if a moral issue were recognized, then individuals would always attempt to act ethically to maintain a consonant self-image. However, this reaction is often not the case, as ethical recognition is often a necessary but insufficient condition for ethical behavior. A further process is also required, whereby individuals judge their behavior as acceptable and form an intention to behave in a given way (e.g., Bersoff, 2001). This paper will describe a process referred to as moral disengagement, whereby individuals justify or rationalize their behavior to disengage social or personal sanctions against acting unethically. Thus, the more employees morally disengage, the more likely they will be to engage in unethical behavior. While the concept of rationalizations has

In attempting to explain deviant behavior among juvenile delinquents, Sykes and Matza (1957) asserted that most delinquents possess conventional values and are able to commit delinquent acts by subscribing to certain rationalizations that define such acts as situationally appropriate. Similarly, Bandura (1999) suggested, “the self-regulatory mechanisms governing moral conduct do not come into play unless they are activated, and that there are many psychosocial maneuvers by which moral self-sanctions are selectively disengaged from inhumane conduct” (p. 193). In other words, moral disengagement is predicated on the use of “psychological maneuvers,” which are consistent with the rationalizations described by Sykes and Matza (1957). Below, I will briefly discuss two rationalizations (i.e., moral justification and displacement of responsibility), and review evidence suggesting that rationalizations disrupt moral behavior by providing justification to morally disengage, and therefore, to act in an unethical manner. Although people may use a variety of rationalizations (see Ashforth & Anand, 2004 for a review), moral justification and displacement of responsibility are focused on here as both have been widely researched and have the clearest links to goal-setting.

Moral justification. Rationalizations facilitate moral disengagement by articulating reasons why the specific unethical acts are justifiable or excusable exceptions to the general normative rules (e.g., Ashforth & Anand, 2004). The first rationalization, moral justification, involves cognitive reconstruction of the behavior itself. That is, people often do not intend to engage in unethical behavior until they have justified to themselves the morality of their actions (e.g., Bandura, 1999). In this process, unethical behavior is made personally and socially acceptable by portraying it in the service of valued or moral purposes. This concept is similar to Sykes and Matza’s (1957) idea that people neutralize their wrongdoing by appealing to higher loyalties. That is, people construe that ethical norms have to be sacrificed for more important causes. Experimentally, Bandura et al. (1996) found that “moral reconstrual of harmful conduct by linking it to worthy purposes” (p. 364) was the most powerful predictor of detrimental activities (e.g., violence, lying).

Hypothesis 1: Moral disengagement through moral justification is positively related to engagement in unethical behavior.

Displacement of responsibility. A second commonly identified rationalization is the displacement of responsibility (e.g., Ashforth & Anand, 2004). Researchers argue that people are most likely to form ethical intentions when they acknowledge that they have an agentive role in the ethical behavior to which they engage (e.g., Bandura, 1999). Thus, people may disengage their moral controls if they deny responsibility of their actions due to circumstances beyond their control. The circumstances may include such things as management orders, peer pressure, dire financial straits, existing precedent, that everyone else is doing it, that they play a small part, and so on (e.g., Greenberg, 1998). For example, employees of Beech-Nut, a company that sold a purely chemical cocktail advertised as baby formula to the public, reported that other companies were doing the same thing, and that their company was just following the pack (Welles, 1988). In essence, Beech-Nut employees denied their own culpability in the decision by suggesting that it was due to forces beyond their control. Empirical studies have demonstrated that, in fact, displacement of responsibility can interfere with individual’s intention to act ethically. For instance, in a laboratory study, Bersoff (2001) found that people were likely to take an “accidental” overpayment by an experimenter, unless the displacement of responsibility neutralization was made unavailable. This neutralization was made unavailable by asking subjects explicitly if they had received correct payment.  

In sum, the above review suggests that ethical recognition and engagement of moral controls are critical decision-making factors related to ethical behavior. That is, I presented theoretical and empirical evidence that individuals who don’t recognize the morality of an issue are unlikely to engage in any form of moral reasoning, thus increasing the likelihood that unethical behavior will be elicited. In addition, evidence was provided that moral disengagement through the use of rationalizations, such as linking harmful or deceitful behavior to moral causes, are effective in neutralizing peoples moral self-sanctions to act ethically, thereby releasing the individual to act in a corrupt manner. Consistently, I propose the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 2: Moral disengagement though displacement of responsibility is positively related to engagement in unethical behavior.

Thus far, I have reviewed theory and research suggesting that ethical behavior is the result of decision-making processes that involves and not rationalizing away the need to act morally.  Next, I will describe a managerial simulation study designed to test the previous hypotheses.



One hundred and sixty-four undergraduates were recruited from business (N=65) and psychology classes (N=99) at a private, Southern U.S. university. The sample was 61% female, with an average age of 19.2 years. While the stimulus materials used in the current study required individuals to assume the role of a business person, previous studies using the current in-basket exercise (e.g., Trevino & Youngblood, 1991) and similar exercises (e.g., Umphress, 2003) used psychology students successfully.

Stimulus Material

Participants were asked to play the role of “Pat Mason,” the National Sales Manager of Micrometer Electronics Inc., an electronics components manufacturing firm. First, participants were given background information in order to facilitate their role-playing exercise. Next, participants were presented with the first of three sections. The first section of the in-basket contained 16 items, including an organization chart, a company newsletter, and 14 letters, memos, or phone messages. One of the items (placed 4th among the items) was designed to provide the goal-setting manipulation. The other 13 letters, memos, and phone messages presented the decisions to be made. Two of these decisions (placed 14th and 16th among the items) were ethical in nature. The other 11 decisions were included to mask the ethics focus of the study. Subjects were given 45 minutes to read through the in-basket and make decisions using a response form to record decisions after each message.

            Unethical Behavior. Unethical behavior was measured through two decision opportunities. The first decision was taken directly from the in-basket developed by Trevino and Youngblood (1990). In the first ethical decision opportunity, the parts decision, subjects responded to a memo from William Wyley, Vice-President of Production, in which he stated that he had decided to change the material used in a particular product component to save on production costs. He advised that customers should not be informed despite potential problems. Mason was informed that sales revenues would likely suffer a $500,000 loss if customers were informed of the change. Participants decided what to do, if anything, in response.

The second ethical decision situation was adapted from an in-basket developed by Brief et al. (1996). Mason was asked to decide whether or not he/she wished to recognize the impending sales of a wiring system on this quarter’s financial statement even though the sale had not been completed.

For each decision, participants were provided a response form that listed a number of options and instructed to choose one. The available options were coded a priori as ethical or unethical (an equivalent number of each) on the basis of criteria developed by Trevino and Youngblood (1991). In the parts situation, a decision not to inform customers was coded as unethical. In the financial reporting decision, participants could choose either to record the $750,000 gain on the current quarter, or wait for the sale to be completed before reporting the gain. A decision to record the gain in the current quarter was unethical because it entailed dishonestly reporting the company’s current financial situation (i.e., recording the sale of a wiring system before the sale actually occurred). Thus, each participant received a score of 0, 1, or 2, indicating the number of unethical decisions made.

Moral Disengagement. Using a priori theoretical categories of rationalizations, Bandura et al. (1996) developed a moral disengagement scale that measured the propensity to use rationalizations for violence and delinquency among schoolchildren. Items in the original measure tapped eight mechanisms (e.g., rationalizations) of moral disengagement: (a) readiness to construe injurious conduct as serving righteous purposes, (b) rendering harmful activities benign by advantageous comparison, (c) using morally neutral language to describe harmful activities, (d) disowning responsibility for harmful effects by displacement or (e) diffusion of responsibility, (f) minimizing the harmful effects of one's detrimental conduct, (g) devaluing those who are maltreated, and (h) attributing blame to them (e.g., Bandura, 1999; Bandura et al., 1996). To cite some examples, “If people are careless where they leave things it is their own fault if they get stolen” was one of the items measuring attribution of blame to the victims. The item “Kids cannot be blamed for misbehaving if their friends pressured them to do it” measured displacement of responsibility. “Some people deserve to be treated like animals” measured proclivity for dehumanization (Bandura et al., 1999).

For the purposes of the current study, a modified version of the moral-disengagement scale was created. The current scale includes items exclusively pertaining to the rationalizations discussed in the introduction (i.e., moral justifications and displacement or diffusion of responsibility). In addition, the detrimental activities and social context embedded in each item were modified to be relevant for working adults and to refer to activities in which the individual could have engaged during the course of the in-basket. That is, while the original items referred to detrimental activities such as physically injurious conduct, verbal abuse, deception, and theft, the current items refer specifically to deception. Similarly, the social context in the original scale was modified from referring to educational, familial, community, and peer relations to refer to organizational and supervisory relations. For example, an original moral justification item stated “It is alright to fight to protect your friends,” and the modified item read: “It is alright to stretch the truth to protect your company.”  An original displacement of responsibility item stated “Kids cannot be blamed for misbehaving if their friends pressured them to do it,” and was modified to state “Employees cannot be blamed for wrongdoing if they feel that their boss pressured them to do it.”  

The moral disengagement scale (see Appendix A) consisted of 13 items rated on a 7-point Likert-type scale (1 = Strongly Disagree to 7 = Strongly Agree) indicating the degree to which participants had the following thoughts while in the role of Pat Mason. As discussed above, moral disengagement was conceptualized to be a construct composed of rationalizations that allow an individual to disengage their internal moral controls by (a) justifying unethical behavior in moral terms (i.e., moral justification) and (b) displacing responsibility for the behavior to an external agent (i.e., displacement of responsibility).

To assess factor structure, a principle axis factor analysis with varimax rotation was conducted on the data. The first step in a factor analysis, once the initial eigenvalues are extracted, is to determine which factors should be retained for rotation.  Selecting the correct number of factors to retain requires setting criteria for retention based on the eigenvalues generated in the exploratory factor analysis.  The approach used to select factors for rotation was parallel analysis, which estimates what eigenvalues one would expect by chance alone given a specified number of items and participants (see Kaufman & Dunlap, 2000).  Some researchers have argued that parallel analysis offers a more practical solution than Kaiser’s rule, as the number of items in a given scale influences the likelihood that an eigenvalue will exceed 1 (Bacon, 2001). The parallel analysis indicated that, given 13 items and 164 participants, the first factor should have an eigenvalue over 1.50, and the second factor should have an eigenvalue over 1.37, and the third factor should have an eigenvalue over 1.27.  Given this criteria, the factor analysis extracted and rotated two factors with eigenvalues of 4.06 and 1.67 respectively.  In addition to the parallel analysis, the scree plot was visually inspected to determine if a third factor was present.  Indeed, the remaining 11 factors that were extracted appeared to form a relatively discontinuous group (i.e., scree) from the first two factors. The rotated factor loadings are reproduced in Table 1, and show a pattern of loadings largely consistent with the original theoretical rational for the dimensions of moral disengagement.  For instance, the four items (i.e., items 1, 8, 10, & 14) written to reflect moral justification (e.g., “It is alright to exaggerate the truth to keep your company out of trouble,” item 14) loaded on a single factor with high internal consistency (alpha = .82). In addition, the items written to reflect displacement of responsibility (e.g., “Employees are not at fault for wrongdoing if their boss puts too much pressure on them to perform at work,” item 18) loaded on a second factor, with the exception of items 2, 7, and 16 which did not load on either factor. Two items (items 11 and 13) displayed cross-loadings on the first factor; however, the cross-loadings were substantially lower than the loading on the second factor.  Therefore, a six item scale measuring displacement of responsibility was created using items 4, 5, 11, 13, 15, and 18, which had an internal consistency estimate of .71. 


Descriptive statistics and intercorrelations are presented in Table 2. As predicted, both moral disengagement through moral justification and displacement of responsibility were significantly related to unethical behavior. However, the magnitude of the relationships was quite different, with moral justification strongly related (r = .34, p < .01) and displacement of responsibility only weakly related (r = .15, p < .05) to unethical behavior.  When both variables were simultaneously entered into a regression equation predicting unethical behavior, the effect of moral justification on unethical behavior changed very little (β = .33, t = 4.12, p <.01), while the effect of displacement of responsibility dropped to near zero (β = .01, t = .12, ns).  Thus, the sub-dimensions do not explain independent variance, as moral justification appears to account for virtually all of the variability in unethical behavior.  The significance of this finding will be returned to as a discussion point in the following section.


Consistent with previous theorizing on the subject (e.g., Bandura, 1999; Jones, 1991), moral disengagement was significantly related to individuals’ propensity to make unethical decisions. At first brush, this result is not particularly groundbreaking. However, moral disengagement through the use of rationalizations is implicitly (e.g., Rest, 1987) or explicitly (e.g., Bandura et al., 1996; Sykes & Matza, 1957) central to most model of ethical decision-making, organizational researchers have yet to examine the construct empirically. Therefore, this paper may provide some important findings regarding the nature of moral disengagement in organizational behavior.  First, the factor structure of the moral disengagement scale corresponded to the theoretical dimensions specified in the original scale developed by Bandura et al. (1996). That is, items tapping moral justification, or rationalizations that reconstrue misbehavior as moral, tended to cluster together, and items related to displacement of responsibility tended to cluster together.  First, I suggested that moral disengagement may represent a unitary construct, with moral justification and displacement of responsibility as alternate mechanisms through which this may take place.  However, given the results of Study 1, treating moral disengagement as a general factor does not appear to be appropriate.  Instead, moral disengagement though moral justification and moral disengagement though displacement of responsibility, appear to operate differently, and should be assessed independently.

In terms of theoretical value within the current dissertation, moral disengagement through reconstruing detrimental conduct as servicing valued social or moral purposes (i.e., moral justification) appears to be the sole predictor of unethical behavior.  That is, once moral justification is accounted for, moral disengagement through displacing the responsibility of ones actions to an external agent does not appear to predict unethical behavior. This finding suggests that disengaging of the moral controls that stop individuals from behaving unethically has more to do with how individuals construe their behavior, than who they rationalize as being ultimately responsible for their behavior.  This is, consistent with studies suggesting that individuals seek to appear “moral” (Batson et al., 1999), justifying the morality of a harmful or deceitful act seems to be substantially more important, in terms of releasing an individual to engage in the behavior, than simply appearing “not responsible.” 

The results regarding the mechanisms moral disengagement are provocative for future research, both as in terms of conceptualizing the variables and understanding how disengaging one’s moral controls may influence one’s propensity to act unethically.  In Given that organizational researchers have shown that providing justifications for wrongdoing can influence other types of organizationally undesirable behaviors such as discriminatory behaviors (e.g., Brief et al., 2000), establishing a connection between rationalizations for moral disengagement and unethical conduct is a reasonable next step. The availability of rationalizations may be amenable to change, thereby providing an avenue for combating unethical behavior at work.  For example, moral justifications such as “If an employee needs to stretch the truth to do their job, they cannot be blamed for lying(item 8) could be countered by executives who emphasize the priority of honest business dealing over increasing revenue.




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Table 1

Factor loadings for Moral Disengagement Scale





Moral Justification



14. It is alright to exaggerate the truth to keep your company out of trouble.



10. If it helps you do your job, it is alright to deceive clients or customers.



1. It is alright to stretch the truth to protect your company.



8. If an employee needs to stretch the truth to do their job, they cannot be blamed for lying.



Displacement of Responsibility



18. Employees are not at fault for wrongdoing if their boss puts too much pressure on them to perform at work.



4. Employees cannot be blamed for wrongdoing if they feel that their boss pressured them to do it.



11. If an employee perceives that his/her company wants him/her to do something unethical, it is unfair to blame the employee for doing it.



13. Employees cannot be blamed for exaggerating the truth when all other employees do it.



15. It is unfair to blame an employee who had only a small part in the harm caused by a company’s actions.



5. If employees engage in unethical behavior at work, it is their boss’s fault.



16. If employees are not going to be disciplined, they should not be blamed for wrongdoing.



7. An employee who only suggests breaking rules should not be blamed if other employees go ahead and do it.



2. An employee should not be blamed for the wrongdoing done on behalf of the organization






Initial Eigenvalue Estimate



% of Variance Accounted For




Note: N = 164. Factor loadings less than |.30| are not shown.

Table 3


Means, Standard Deviations and Intercorrelations of Variables Used in Study 1








Using all participants






   1. Unethical Behavior






   6. Moral Justification






   7. Displacement of   








Note. N= 164 for all correlations. Reliabilities are in parentheses on the diagonal.

* p < .05; ** p < .01