‘Ethical blindness’: Loyal workers often taken advantage of by their managers

DURHAM, N.C. — We all want to put our best foot forward on the job, but at what point does company loyalty and dedication become more of a detriment than a benefit? Interesting new research out of Duke University suggests many employees may want to take a step back the next time their boss or manager asks for someone looking to “go above and beyond.”

Study authors have found that bosses and managers tend to target their more loyal workers over less committed colleagues when dispensing out unpaid work and extra job tasks.

“Companies want loyal workers, and there is a ton of research showing that loyal workers provide all sorts of positive benefits to companies,” says Matthew Stanley, Ph.D., the lead researcher on the new paper and postdoctoral researcher at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, in a university release. “But it seems like managers are apt to target them for exploitative practices.”

Those are the main conclusions stemming for a series of experiments conducted by Stanley and colleagues Chris Neck, Ph.D. and Chris Neck, father-and-son researchers from Arizona State University and West Virginia University. For the study, the team recruited nearly 1,400 managers online and asked everyone to read about a fictional 29-year-old employee named “John.” All the managers who took part in the study read that John works for a company with a very tight budget. In an attempt to keep costs down, managers were asked how willing they would be to task John with extra hours and responsibilities without any extra pay. Participants assigning the unpaid work in Stanley’s study were compensated $12 an hour.

Interestingly, no matter how exactly Stanley and his team framed the situation, labelling John as “loyal” always resulted in the managers being more open to assigning him unpaid work. All in all, managers were much more willing to exploit a “Loyal John” as opposed to a “Disloyal John.” Then, when a separate group of managers read a letter of recommendation about John, with the letter praising John as loyal, it led to even more increased willingness to recruit him for unpaid work — even over other versions of John praised for honesty or fairness.

Coworkers talking at the office
(Image courtesy pexels.com)

The reverse also held true: When John was depicted as having a reputation for working long hours and taking on extra work, managers usually rated that version as more loyal than a John with a reputation for declining the very same workloads. “Agreeable John” and “Refusal John” were rated about equal in terms of honesty and fairness, though, indicating that loyalty, but not closely related moral traits, is likely reinforced by a history of doing free labor.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” Dr. Stanley adds. “Loyal workers tend to get picked out for exploitation. And then when they do something that’s exploitative, they end up getting a boost in their reputation as a loyal worker, making them more likely to get picked out in the future.”

Managers should recognize when they’re exploiting loyal employees

One reason managers prey on loyal workers more often, according to researchers, is the belief that it’s just the price to pay for being loyal. Managers seem to believe that loyalty inherently comes with a duty to make personal sacrifices for the company.

To be clear, these managerial actions aren’t always malicious. Exploitation could be caused in certain cases by ignorance, or what psychologists call “ethical blindness.”

“Most people want to be good,” Dr. Stanley explains. “Yet, they transgress with surprising frequency in their everyday lives. A lot of it is due to ethical blindness, where people don’t see how what they’re doing is inconsistent with whatever principles or values they tend to profess.”

While this project doesn’t offer a quick fix regarding how to do away with these managerial exploitative practices, Dr. Stanley posits it may help greatly if managers recognize the error of their ways and take note of these ethical blind spots.

So does all this mean employees should avoid putting in extra work at all costs? Not necessarily, study authors say. Dr. Stanley believes these findings are an unfortunate side effect of a mostly positive trait, as has also been documented regarding other aspirational traits, like generosity.

“I don’t want to suggest that the take-away of the paper is to not be loyal to anybody because it just leads to disaster,” Dr. Stanley concludes. “We value people who are loyal. We think about them in positive terms. They get awarded often. It’s not just the negative side. It’s really tricky and complex.”

The study is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.


  1. Yeah! you are right about that a lot of it is due to ethical blindness, where people don’t see how what they’re doing is inconsistent

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