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Promoting Employee Voice through Ethical Leadership Communication to Mitigate Organizational Risk from Deviant Workplace Behaviors (DWBs)

From small businesses to multinational corporations, deviant workplace behaviors (DWBs) create significant and multifaceted risks to an organization.  DWBs are unethical behaviors including discrimination, harassment, and bullying that violate organizational ethics, threatening the organization and its members (Zappalà et al., 2022, p. 2).  DWBs are a persistent and pervasive problem for organizations. In a survey of 2,000 workers from the United States and the United Kingdom, bullying, harassment, and discrimination are the most common misconduct with over half of participants having experienced or witnessed bullying, and approximately half of participants experienced or witnessed harassment or discrimination (Vault, 2021, pp. 2-4). Ongoing DWBs create extensive regulatory, financial, and reputational risks to organizations based on their responses to DWBs. Organizations are subject to extensive regulation regarding their responsibility to identify and address DWBs. Litigation and reputational risks are reflected in the extensive media coverage of organizations for ongoing discrimination. Direct and indirect costs associated employee turnover due to DWBs cost U.S. companies billions of dollars a year (Burns, 2012, p. 1). Constantinescu and Kaptein (2021) identified the organizational responsibility to create clarity and visibility in expectations and responses to DWBs (p. 6). Foundational to ethical leadership is the responsibility to set ethical norms and appropriate behaviors across the organization (Mishra & Tikoria, 2021, pp. 439-440).


Organizations are often reliant upon employees' willingness to engage in voice behaviors for awareness of DWBs. Despite the prevalence of DWBs, they are often unreported. Without reports, DWBs can continue unabated for decades without leadership knowledge (Täuber et al., 2022, p. 3). Psychological safety is directly and indirectly associated with internal reporting (Burhan et al., 2023). Psychological safety is essential to employee voice behaviors. Perceived psychological safety positively correlates with employee voice (Chaudhary et al., 2019) while a perceived lack of psychological safety contributes to employee silence (Kirkner et al., 2022, p. 207; Mazzone et al., 2023, p. 11).


To promote employee voice, organizations need evidence-based, intentional strategies that increase psychological safety.  A rapid evidence assessment examined the problem through social identity theory (SIT). Zappalà et al. (2022) offer research is emerging that recognizes the social and organizational influences on DWBs (p. 19).  SIT includes organizations as a social group to which employees can identify as part of their social identity. Through social identity theory, a Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA) was conducted to identify how ethical leadership communication impacts psychological safety to promote employee voice behaviors.


The research supports ethical leadership communication impacts employee organizational social identity and psychological safety through verbal and non-verbal communication. The findings from the REA informs recommendations to management.


Recommendations to Management


·      Develop an ethical leadership communication plan.


Organizations should engage communications and public affairs units to develop or incorporate identification messaging within the organization’s internal branding, including the organizational brand voice and story. The plan should include organizational and leadership communications schedules to reinforce employee identification.  The ethical leadership plan should include unit communications to engage managers in the recommendation and encourage a message multiplier effect.


·      Operationalize ethical leadership communication.


Communication, as a mechanism, needs to be operationalized through measurable actions. Key performance indicators (KPIs) for leadership, including managers, should include dissemination and reinforcement of the organizational ethical norms. Through operationalization and specific goals regarding ethical communication, ethical norms will be consistently reinforced across all levels of the organization.


·      Leadership communication education and training program.


Develop and deploy training for leadership, including managers, on the impact of communication, verbal and non-verbal, on employee psychological safety. The educational program should be inclusive of the organization’s ethical norms and expectations to maintain consistency across the organization.


DWBs are a significant risk to organizations across industries and location. Understanding and mitigating the risks associated with DWBs is essential for organizational success. Ethical leadership communication is one strategy organizations can employ to promote psychological safety and encourage employee voice.



Burns, C. (2012). The costly business of discrimination: The economic costs and financial benefits of gay and transgender equality in the workplace. C. f. A. Progress.

Constantinescu, M., & Kaptein, M. (2021). Virtue and virtuousness in organizations: Guidelines for ascribing individual and organizational moral responsibility. Business Ethics, the Environment & Responsibility, 30(4), 801-817. 

Kirkner, A. C., Lorenz, K., & Mazar, L. (2022). Faculty and staff reporting & disclosure of sexual harassment in higher education [Article]. Gender & Education, 34(2), 199-215. 

Mazzone, A., Karakolidis, A., Pitsia, V., Freeney, Y., & James. (2023). Witnessing bullying at work: Employee silence in higher education institutions. Higher Education Quarterly. 

Mishra, B., & Tikoria, J. (2021). Impact of ethical leadership on organizational climate and its subsequent influence on job commitment: a study in hospital context [Journal]. Journal of Management Development, 40(5), 438-452. 

Täuber, S., Loyens, K., Oertelt-Prigione, S., & Kubbe, I. (2022). Harassment as a consequence and cause of inequality in academia: A narrative review [article]. EClinicalMedicine, 49(101486-). 

Vault. (2021). The trust gap: Expectations vs reality in workplace misconduct & speak up culture. V. Platform.

Zappalà, S., Sbaa, M. Y., Kamneva, E. V., Zhigun, L. A., Korobanova, Z. V., & Chub, A. A. (2022). Current Approaches, Typologies and Predictors of Deviant Work Behaviors: A Scoping Review of Reviews. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.


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1 Comment

Well said, Stephanie

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