Do Ethical Leadership, Visibility, External Regulation, and Prosocial Impact Affect Unethical Behavior? Evidence From a Laboratory and a Field Experiment

Published date01 September 2019
Date01 September 2019
AuthorNicola Belle,Paola Cantarelli
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-1773x82UkUpRoq/input 721301ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X17721301Review of Public Personnel AdministrationBelle and Cantarelli
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2019, Vol. 39(3) 349 –371
Do Ethical Leadership,
© The Author(s) 2017
Article reuse guidelines:
Visibility, External Regulation,
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X17721301
and Prosocial Impact Affect
Unethical Behavior? Evidence
From a Laboratory and a
Field Experiment
Nicola Belle1 and Paola Cantarelli2
This article investigates the effects that ethical leadership, visibility of task
performance and conduct, external regulation, and prosocial impact have on revealed
and observed preferences for unethical behavior in public administration settings.
Experiment 1 engages university students in a laboratory experiment and observes
misconduct in two tasks. Ethical messages and visibility reduced subjects’ dishonesty
in declaring the outcome of the task that affected their pay but did not influence the
self-reported performance in the exercise tied to raising donations. For the latter
task, ethical leadership and visibility interacted negatively. Monetary incentives and
prosocial impact increased individuals’ unethical behavior consistently across the two
tasks. Experiment 2 is a discrete choice experiment exploring public sector workers’
preferences for misbehaving on the job. While ethical leadership and visibility did not
affect their preferences, a significant financial gain and the opportunity to improve the
life of many people increased the willingness to behave unethically.
ethical leadership, visibility, external regulation, prosocial impact, unethical behavior,
laboratory experiment, field experiment, discrete choice experiment
1Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna MHL Laboratory, Pisa, Italy
2Bocconi University, Milan, Italy
Corresponding Author:
Nicola Belle, Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna MHL Laboratory, Piazza Martiri della Libertà 33, Pisa 56127,

Review of Public Personnel Administration 39(3)
Understanding the causes and consequences of unethical behavior is key for organiza-
tions and society at large. Indeed,
corruption and abuse of public office are a blight on democracies and a drain on public
finances. With trust in government flagging in many countries and voter disillusionment
on the rise, raising standards of integrity is more important than ever. (Organization for
Economic Co-Operation and Development [OECD], 2017)
In the past few years, research on unethical behavior has increasingly gained the atten-
tion of scholars in different disciplines within the social sciences (e.g., Kish-Gephart,
Harrison, & Treviño, 2010; Liu & Mikesell, 2014; Mazar, Amir, & Ariely, 2008;
Menzel, 2015; Moore & Gino, 2015; OECD, 2015; Perry, 2015).
A recent meta-analysis of 137 experiments on the determinants of misconduct iden-
tified 12 drivers of dishonest behaviors and suggested specific directions that public
administration scholars could take to advance research and practice in this area in our
field (Belle & Cantarelli, 2017). For example, despite ethics in government remaining
“at the heart of what we are about as a professional field” (Perry, 2015, p. 187), our
knowledge is still scant about how ethical leaders and/or colleagues affect public
employees’ behaviors (see Downe, Cowell, & Morgan, 2016; Hassan, Wright, & Yukl,
2014, for two exceptions). Similarly, although public service motivation has a long
and fruitful tradition of research and practice in our field (e.g., Brewer & Brewer,
2011; Neumann, 2016; Pedersen, 2015; Perry, 2014; Ritz, Brewer, & Neumann, 2016;
Van der Wal, 2015), we have a limited understanding of whether and how the desire to
serve others may backfire and fuel employees’ dishonesty on the job. From a method-
ological perspective, public administration research on integrity and unethicality is
dominated by observational designs (e.g., Menzel, 2015; Von Maravić, 2008). To the
contrary, randomized trials of the drivers of individuals’ dishonesty prevail in disci-
plines like business, ethics, economics, management, and psychology (Belle &
Cantarelli, 2017).
This article investigates whether and how individuals’ actual unethical behavior
and self-reported preferences to engage in dishonest acts are influenced by four fac-
tors: ethical leadership, visibility of one’s task performance and conduct on the job,
external regulation, and prosocial impact. Recent work has argued that those elements
are especially relevant and timely in public administration research and practice (e.g.,
Belle, 2015; Belle & Cantarelli, 2017; Bolino & Grant, 2016; Downe et al., 2016). We
study the effects of these factors using two randomized trials and three experimental
tasks. Experiment 1 consists of a laboratory experiment in which students can engage
in unethical behavior by misreporting their performance in two tasks, one that gener-
ates benefits for themselves and one that generates donations for others. Experiment 2,
instead, features a discrete choice experiment in which Italian public administration
workers with different managerial responsibilities and serving in different industries
within the public sector indicate under what circumstances they would be more willing
to engage in a specific unethical act.

Belle and Cantarelli
Our work makes three primary contributions. First, it advances our understanding
of unethical behavior in public administration settings. To the best of our knowledge,
it represents the first attempt to study the independent, combined, and simultaneous
effects of ethical leadership, visibility, external regulation, and prosocial impact on
dishonesty. Second, this article provides unique insights on the dark sides of the four
variables separately; whereas much of the available research investigates their bright
sides, our work calls for more attention to their undesired effects as well. Third, this
article helps efforts to triangulate results across research designs by adding novel and
multiple experimental evidence on the drivers of unethical behavior to existing obser-
vational studies in public administration.
The remainder of the article proceeds as follows. The next four sections are dedi-
cated to ethical leadership, visibility, external regulation, and prosocial impact, respec-
tively. Each section defines the concept first and then summarizes what we know
about its relation with dishonesty. Then, the article presents the method and results of
Experiment 1 and Experiment 2. The article concludes with a general discussion of the
findings, an acknowledgment of the study limitations, and a proposal of avenues for
future research.
Ethical Leadership and Followership
Even though ethics and integrity are foundational elements of government and democ-
racy (e.g., Adams & Balfour, 2010; Menzel, 2015; Perry, 2015), and ethical leadership
is among the most relevant leadership theory in public administration and manage-
ment (e.g., Van Wart, 2013), research is scant on the causal link between ethical lead-
ers and followers’ behavior (e.g., Downe et al., 2016; Hassan et al., 2014). A recent
meta-analysis synthesizing 137 experiments in 73 articles across disciplines did not
locate any randomized trial on how one’s behavior is dependent on supervisor’s hon-
esty or lack thereof (Belle & Cantarelli, 2017).
Ethical actions on the job refer to “individual behavior that is subject to or judged
according to generally accepted moral norms of behavior” (Treviño, Weaver, &
Reynolds, 2006, p. 952). Unethical intentions and conduct, then, can be defined as
“one’s willingness or commitment to engage in an unethical behavior” and any “action
that violates widely accepted (societal) moral norms,” respectively (Kish-Gephart
et al., 2010, p. 2). Bureaucratic ethos and democratic ethos are two sets of administra-
tive values that characterize research and practice on public administration ethics.
(Pugh, 1991). Bureaucratic ethos (Pugh, 1991) centers on two key elements: (a)
Nonelected employees in government organizations are subordinated and held
accountable to elected officials who, in turn, are duty bound to communicate the pub-
lic will to bureaucrats, and (b) public sector workers need to use managerial tech-
niques in the provision of public services. Scholars have identified a critical drawback
to bureaucratic ethos: When managerial principles such as efficiency and neutral com-
petence are taken to the extreme, bureaucratic ethos can turn into administrative evil
(e.g., Adams & Balfour, 1998). Democratic ethos, instead, stresses political and regime
values. Adherence to standards such as benevolence, social equity, and justice would

Review of Public Personnel Administration 39(3)
allow public administrators the ability to prevent unethical behavior in the workplace
and promote the highest ethical standards (e.g., Pugh, 1991; Rohr, 1998).
The birth and growth of ethical leadership as a stand-alone concept is grounded in
the social learning and social exchange theories. The former (Bandura, 1977, 1986)
contends that learning is a cognitive process that occurs in social interactions through
observation and reinforcement. Thus, individuals learn how to behave ethically by
receiving rewards for ethical actions and punishments for unethical actions as well as
by mimicking...

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