Are Leaders Ethical?

The question of what is ethical has been an ongoing debate. Previous research has shown that ethical leaders tell right from wrong. They also establish ethical principles within their organizations. Ethical leaders also value transparency, the quality of being open and honest. As the world changes, what we consider an ethical leader is changing too. 

Recently, organizations have started to focus more on racial diversity. This is the acknowledgement and appreciation for folks within different racial groups. For example, leaders have begun talking to their employees about how they think diversity should be managed at work. Importantly, not all leaders communicate about diversity in the same way. We wondered what are the consequences of communicating about diversity in different ways. Are leaders seen as more or less ethical depending on what they say about diversity?

      Our research shows that whether or not employees see a leader as more (or less) ethical depends on what leaders communicate about diversity. Leaders can be considered identity-conscious or identity-blind. 

When a leader is identity-conscious, they recognize and value the racial and ethnic identities of their employees. This is also known as multiculturalism. We wanted to establish an in-depth idea of what multiculturalism looks like in organizations. We asked leaders in the United States to describe how they manage diversity in their place of work. These leaders had direct employees who worked under them. They came from different industries including healthcare, technology, education, and finance. Identity-conscious supervisors talked about how they wanted to understand and acknowledge the cultural backgrounds of their employees. 

      On the other hand, leaders who are identity-blind believe group differences should be ignored to best manage diversity within workforces. There are three main types of identity-blind approaches: colorblind, meritocracy, and assimilation. Leaders using the colorblind approach believe that ignoring racial/ethnic differences is the best way to approach diversity. Leaders using the meritocracy approach believe one's performance should determine their outcome. In other words, if they perform well, they should get rewarded. If they perform poorly, they should not get rewarded. Leaders using the assimilation approach believe racial/ethnic minorities should adopt the majority culture to decrease group differences. Below are quotes from leaders exhibiting each of the three identity-blind approaches. 

      Our research investigates whether a leader’s diversity approach impacts if employees view their leader as ethical (or unethical). We examined this question across three studies. In these studies, we surveyed 734 working adults in the United States. These adults were given one of two tasks. In the first task, participants were asked to assess their own leader's approach to diversity. In the second task, we presented participants with a description of a made-up leader and provided information about the leader's diversity beliefs. We then asked participants to describe how they felt about the leader.

      We found that employees had the most consistent, positive reactions to leaders who used identity-conscious leadership. Employees viewed their leaders as more ethical when they used more identity-conscious communication. Additionally, viewing their leader as ethical actually changed the behavior of the employees. The employees became more engaged in helping improve their organization. For example, employees were more willing to provide help to other employees. We also found that employees who were more aware of institutional discrimination responded the most positively to identity-conscious leaders. An example of institutional discrimination is when bias can negatively affect someone’s likelihood of getting a job. Employees who were aware of institutional discrimination felt identity-conscious leaders were more ethical compared to identity-blind leaders. 

      These findings give us confidence to suggest that leaders use identity-conscious leadership when communicating about diversity. This does not imply that leaders should adopt such an approach just because it is strategically beneficial. Rather, our findings show that there are ethical-based reasons why employees feel positively about identity-conscious leadership.

      Practically, our results suggest that leaders should be aware of the diversity messages they share with their employees. Based on our results, how a leader approaches diversity influences whether employees view that leader as ethical or not. Thus, leaders should pay attention to what is being communicated to employees in diversity statements. If not communicated properly, these statements could have important ethical consequences for leaders, and can impact the behavior of employees in the workplace. 


Written By: Dr. Carolyn T. Dang, Dr. Sabrina D. Volpone, & Dr. Elizabeth Umphress


Academic Editor: Health Policy Researcher

Non-Academic Editor: High Schooler & a 5th-Grader 


Original Paper

• Title: The Ethics of Diversity Ideology: Consequences of Leader Diversity Ideology on Ethical Leadership Perception and Organizational Citizenship Behavior

• Authors: Carolyn Dang, Sabrina Volpone, & Elizabeth Umphress

• Journal: Journal of Applied Psychology 

• Date Published: 17 March 2022

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