Scientists have explained why it's so important for bosses to act as good role models

Grace Rahman
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One worker looks over another's shoulder at a desk.
Bad behaviour from bosses creates a culture of acceptable rule-breaking. (Source: Getty)

Cracking down on bosses who break the rules could be the key to reducing bad behaviour across a company, researchers have found.

A study by the University of California found that people were less likely to blame or punish those who had behaved unethically if they were imitating a high-ranking employee who’d also misbehaved.

Bosses behaving badly

In other words, we're more likely to turn a blind eye to bad behaviour if we hear an office rumour someone high up has done the same.

If the same crime had only been carried out by a peer, employees judged the culprit more, gave them a larger punishment and were less likely to commit the crime themselves.

This was only the case when bosses were from the same company and were guilty of the same misdemeanours, showing senior employees can create a culture of acceptable wrongdoing within a firm.

Do as I say, not as I do

Studies have already shown people are more inclined to break the rules when they know others have done it first.

This study looked at really bad behaviour, far more serious than getting the odd personal package delivered to your work's post room or playing on your phone too much. Researchers looked at fraud like filing false expense reports and inventory theft which comes at a substantial cost to firms.

Crime and Punishment

The threat of punishment was a major influence on whether low-ranking employees would imitate their bosses’ bad behaviour.

Professor Christopher Bauman, the paper’s lead author, said people were less likely to break the rules if they were told the higher-ups had been punished for the same offence.

“It wasn't necessary to provide details about how severely the first person was punished, it was sufficient to simply signal that the misdeed did not go unchecked,” he said.

Speaking of which, here's the worst boss of all time, David Brent, being massively inappropriate in the workplace.

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