Managers are unethical when high targets are in sight

They engage in deceptive behaviour to meet unrealistic expectations from their bosses

Organisational corruption, when exposed, often has its roots in an unexpected source; rather than the corrupt leader of folklore, it is middle managers who drive unethical behaviours to meet unrealistic expectations from their bosses.

Researchers at Penn State University carried out a 15-month study of a desk sales unit in a large telecoms firm and discovered that, to work around unrealistically high targets, middle managers coerced their subordinates into deceiving upper management about how well their unit was performing.

“They got really creative because their bonuses were tied to what their people did, or because they didn’t want to lose their jobs,” says Linda Treviño, professor of organisational behaviour and ethics at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business.

During the study, managers engaged in strategies including co-opting sales from other units, portraying orders as actual sales and deploying coercive tactics over their subordinates, such as offering rewards for unethical behaviour.

Deceptive actions can harm organisations in several ways, including affecting the bottom line through bonuses being awarded based on deceptive performance, and causing senior management to make strategic decisions based on false success.

While some managers develop these behaviours on their own initiative, the researchers suggest some of these tactics are learned from other managers, indicating unethical behaviours could be equally widespread among companies.