Why and when does ethical leadership evoke unethical follower behaviour?

K. Kalshoven, H. van Dijk, C. Boon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

74 Citations (Scopus)


In examining whether social exchange or social identity mechanisms drive the relationship between ethical leadership and unethical pro-organizational behavior (UPB), the purpose of this paper is to argue that the mechanism linking ethical leadership and UPB varies for different levels of job autonomy.
Data were requested from 225 employees in several Dutch organizations, of which 156 questionnaires were returned. The authors used multilevel path analysis in MPlus to test the hypotheses, which allows for simultaneous estimation of different regression equations and for testing the significance of indirect effects.
In line with the hypotheses, results revealed a direct relationship between ethical leadership and UPB when followers have little job autonomy. For followers high on job autonomy, the authors found that ethical leadership relates to UPB via organizational identification.
Practical implications
It is advised to use ethical leadership with care when it focusses on reciprocity and identification. The results suggest that followers may be inclined to justify their unethical actions by appealing to the principle of higher loyalty – believing they are just doing what the organization wants them to do.
Previous research has used social learning theory to show that ethical leadership is likely to stimulate and transfer ethical norms and behaviors. The current study however demonstrates the reciprocal and dark side of ethical leadership, as the authors found that ethical leadership can encourage UPB for followers with low job autonomy.
Social identity theory, Ethical leadership, Social exchange theory, Job autonomy, Unethical pro-organizational behaviour
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)500-515
JournalJournal of Managerial Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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