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Villains, Victims, and Verisimilitudes: An Exploratory Study of Unethical Corporate Values, Bullying Experiences, Psychopathy, and Selling Professionals’ Ethical ReasoningSean Valentine1 • Gary Fleischman2 • Lynn Godkin3Received: 3 July 2015 / Accepted: 10 December 2015 / Published online: 6 January 2016? Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016Abstract This study assesses the relationships amongunethical corporate values, bullying experiences, psy-chopathy, and selling professionals’ ethical evaluations ofbullying. Information was collected from national/regionalsamples of selling professionals. Results indicated thatunethical values, bullying, and psychopathy were posi-tively interrelated. Psychopathy and unethical values werenegatively associated with moral intensity, while moralintensity was positively related to ethical issue importance.Psychopathy and unethical values were negatively relatedto issue importance, and issue importance and moralintensity were positively related to ethical judgment.Finally, ethical judgment and moral intensity were posi-tively linked to ethical intention; psychopathy was nega-tively associated with ethical intention.Keywords Workplace bullying ? Psychopathy ? Corporate ethical values ? Ethical reasoningIntroductionSales organizations experience many ethical problems,often prompted by the boundary spanning and autonomy inselling (Caywood and Laczniak 1986; Wotruba 1990).Lying about or exaggerating product characteristics, mis-representing sales terms, using aggressive tactics, offeringunauthorized buying incentives, treating customers differ-ently, and acting rudely are all examples of inappropriatesales behaviors. Equally challenging are conflicting orga-nizational goals, the competitive nature of selling, theunethical behaviors of referent others, and the expectations,cajoling, and rewards of sales managers that can encouragemisconduct (Ferrell et al. 2007; Hoffman et al. 1991;Tellefsen and Eyuboglu 2002). Selling professionals canalso be more self-interested than others (Singhapakdi andVitell 1992), leading to egoism and impression manage-ment. They are often in a position to manipulativelydevelop social networks that are personally advantageous(Seevers et al. 2007) and justify misconduct throughrationalizations that make such actions seem moreacceptable (Serviere-Munoz and Mallin 2013). Further,selling professionals can exhibit counterproductive behav-iors (Darrat et al. 2010), with interpersonal devianceinvolving the mistreatment of other employees such as‘‘sales territory infringement, refusing to participate in thesynergistic sharing of relevant customer information, orengaging in hurtful behavior targeted at coworkers (e.g.,cursing, gossiping, or making ethnic or derogatory com-ments)’’ (Darrat et al. 2010, p. 240). These acts are closelyrelated to workplace bullying.Prepared for Journal of Business Ethics; this study was presented atthe 75th Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management,Vancouver, British Columbia, August 7–11, 2015; this research wassupported by the funding provided by the University of Wyoming; theauthors wish to thank O. C. Ferrell, Eric Arnould, Tim Barnett, andthe anonymous reviewer for their assistance with this study.& Sean Valentine svalentine@business.und.eduGary Fleischmangary.fleischman@ttu.eduLynn Godkinlynn.godkin@lamar.edu1 Department of Management, University of North Dakota, 293Centennial Drive, Mailstop 8377, Grand Forks,ND 58202-8377, USA2 School of Accounting, Rawls College of Business, TexasTech University, Box 42101, Lubbock, TX 79409-2101, USA3 Department of Management and Marketing, LamarUniversity, P.O. Box 10059, Beaumont, TX 77710, USA123J Bus Ethics (2018) 148:135–154 work suggests that bullying is common in organi-zations (Fox and Stallworth 2006; Parzefall and Salin2010; Zapf et al. 2003). For instance, this misbehavioroccurs and/or has been studied in schools (Hymel andSwearer 2015), higher education (Keashly and Neuman2010, 2013; Vickers 2014), healthcare (Granstra 2015;Mikkelsen and Einarsen 2001), and various organizationalcontexts (e.g., Boddy 2011; Hodson et al. 2006; Pilch andTurska 2015), as well as among salespeople (Valentineet al. 2015) and other employees (e.g., Ayoko 2007;Baillien et al. 2011; Boddy 2011; Lutgen-Sandvik et al.2007; Mikkelsen and Einarsen 2001; Salin 2001). Thepersistent harassing or threatening of targeted individuals(Einarsen 1999; Glasø et al. 2009; Parzefall and Salin2010) is recognized as a potentially serious issue (Glasøet al. 2009; Lutgen-Sandvik et al. 2007).Given this awareness, the prevalence, antecedents, andconsequences of bullying have been investigated in theorganizational sciences (Einarsen et al. 2009; Einarsen andSkogstad 1996; Fox and Stallworth 2006; Hauge et al.2009; Salin 2003; Walters et al. 2008). For example, anumber of employment factors such as job autonomy andworkload (Baillien et al. 2011), status inconsistency(Heames et al. 2006), and power differentials (Vartia 1996)are related to workplace bullying. In addition, conditionssuch as elevated chaos, frequent change, poor communi-cation, dysfunctional work conflict, and unjust supervisionare antecedents associated with bullying (Ayoko 2007;Boddy 2011; Harvey et al. 2009; Hodson et al. 2006;Langan-Fox and Sankey 2008; Sweeney 2007). Highlycompetitive and performance-driven (or zero sum) rewardsystems and work environments can also contribute tobullying in the workplace (Aquino and Thau 2009; Salin,2003; Samnani and Singh 2014).Even though bullying has been addressed in a range oforganizational contexts (e.g., Fox and Stallworth 2006;Granstra 2015; Hymel and Swearer 2015; Keashly andNeuman 2013, 2010; Mikkelsen and Einarsen 2001;Parzefall and Salin 2010; Pilch and Turska 2015; Salin2001; Valentine et al. 2015; Vickers 2014; Zapf et al.2003), it is underexplored within sales. In addition, rela-tively few empirical studies focus on how bullying expe-riences impact targets’ perceptions and attitudes in waysthat impact the broader work environment, as well asemployees’ thoughts and behaviors. Of particular interest isthe possibility that bullying experiences, combined withtargets’ dispositional tendencies to display illicit andharmful workplace actions (deemed corporate psychopathyby Boddy 2005), might influence some selling profes-sionals’ ethical evaluations of covert, manipulative, andpassive–aggressive bullying behaviors. Bullying combinedwith subtle psychopathy may also be virulent in a poorwork context given that negative behaviors reinforceunethical values, and severe harm can occur becausemanagement does not intervene and arrest the behavior.Such inquiry is relevant and important. Prior researchsuggests that individual traits and covert bullying mightfunction together to cause a cascade of negative workoutcomes that can adversely impact the workplace (An-dersson and Pearson 1999; Fox and Stallworth 2006; Glasøet al. 2009; Glomb and Liao 2003; Keashly and Neuman2005; Leymann and Gustafsson 1996; Salin 2003). Giventhe inherent web of ethical issues related to bullyingbehavior and psychopathy (e.g., Boddy 2010, 2011),weakened ethical reasoning may also result. Selling pro-fessionals may choose to act unethically because they workin an environment that allows and/or encourages bullying.A negative social context prompted by unethical corporatevalues might encourage selling professionals to harm and/or take advantage of their colleagues, or weaken theirethical evaluations of bullying misconduct (Douglas et al.2001; Singhapakdi 1993; Singhapakdi and Vitell 1991;Singhapakdi et al. 2000; Valentine and Barnett 2007).The goal of this exploratory study is to examine rela-tionships among unethical corporate values, bullying,psychopathy, moral intensity, and selling professionals’ethical reasoning. Since few published works explore thesetopics, this study underscores how perceptions of the salesenvironment can precipitate behavioral tendencies, ethicalperceptions, and attitudes in selling professionals. Suchinquiry is relevant given the ethically problematic nature ofemployment in sales (e.g., Caywood and Laczniak 1986;Tsalikis and Fritzsche 1989; Wotruba 1990). Sellingactivities are affected by many ethical dilemmas that cantest professionals on a daily basis, and counterproductivebehaviors such as covert bullying and latent psychopathymay be encouraged. This study endeavors to provideunderstanding about the association of these deviantbehaviors, while also pointing to strategies to mitigate theirprevalence.Another ethical concern involves selling professionals’boundary spanning roles, which can afford them autono-mous, self-regulated employment that is unfettered andunchecked, especially when performance expectations arebeing met, the right deals are closed, and money is beingmade for the firm. This is a problem worth investigating,since it is in these very roles that bullies and psychopathsmight be most damaging to the workplace because man-agement does not witness how they treat others (and maybedoes not care to know). The issue is exacerbated when thedeviant behavior is covert and/or latent, especially ifmasked by external charm and impression management.Given that perpetrators’ visible, tangible, and/or measur-able job performance can be quite acceptable, if not aboveexpectations, they are often commended and, in somecases, even promoted and protected by leaders. Research136 S. Valentine et al.123shows that sales managers may reprimand more lenientlyunethical salespeople who are successful at their jobs(Bellizzi and Hasty 2003). Consequently, sales managersmay unknowingly lay a foundation for continued miscon-duct and unethical reasoning because they ‘‘just do not seeit’’ or knowingly establish such a workplace because they‘‘do not want to see it.’’ The employment of psychopaths insales organizations presents a number of problems becauseleaders must manage their negative attitudes/conduct whilerecognizing the positive contributions that they may make(Boddy et al. 2010; Hare 1999).This study is also the first to consider the impact ofunethical corporate values, bullying experiences, and psy-chopathy on ethical evaluations of deviant social interac-tions in the selling environment. Indeed, ‘‘speculation onthe possible effects of Corporate Psychopaths on organi-zations has not been supported by a large body of empiricalevidence. Only anecdotal commentary on what theseeffects might be on organizations has been written’’(Boddy et al. 2010, p. 2). These variables are particularlyimportant because sales managers might unknowinglydevelop (or allow) a work context that discourages ethicaldecision making by reinforcing the triggers that encourageprofessionals to bully others and exhibit psychopathictendencies. Negative corporate values and other unethicalpractices could be a catalyst for creating a workplace thatprompts selling professionals to mistreat others.Finally, psychopaths represent approximately 1 % of thegeneral population (Boddy et al. 2010), which suggests thatsales organizations employ them even though they are fewin number and there is little awareness of the inherentproblems they present. However, focusing on this smallgroup of ‘‘clinical’’ psychopaths is likely myopic. Instead,this study identifies subtle bullying/psychopathic tenden-cies such as more passive, manipulative, competitive, self-interested, and/or aggressive actions, which are much morelikely to occur in sales organizations (Ferrell et al. 2007;Hoffman et al. 1991; Seevers et al. 2007; Singhapakdi andVitell 1992; Tellefsen and Eyuboglu 2002; Valentine et al.2015). As such, the relevance of this investigation has thepotential to provide leaders with useful workplace guid-ance because problems must be managed internally in salesorganizations through proper managerial controls andaction.Literature ReviewSelling Professionals’ Ethical ReasoningA number of models address how business professionalsmake ethical decisions. Ethical reasoning occurs whenindividuals experience workplace dilemmas (Jones 1991;Rest 1986; Robin et al. 1996), situations that prompt therecognition of an ethical problem (Hunt and Vitell 1986,2006; Jones 1991; Rest 1986). Individuals must makeethical judgments by assessing problems based on ethicalstandards and decision criteria (Hunt and Vitell 1986,2006; Rest 1986), which leads to the formulation of ethicalintentions that support ethical judgments (Hunt and Vitell1986; Jones 1991; Rest 1986). The final componentinvolves committing ethical behaviors that result fromformalized intentions (Jones 1991; Rest 1986).The perceived importance of an ethical situation (PIE) isanother important part of ethical reasoning (Robin et al.1996). According to Robin et al. (1996, p. 17), the con-struct ‘‘is personal and temporal in character in order toaccommodate an individual’s values, beliefs, needs, per-ceptions, the special characteristics of the situation, and thepersonal pressures existing on an ongoing basis or at aparticular place and time,’’ and these factors contribute toindividuals’ overall feelings about the prominence of eth-ical problems or situations. Robin et al. (1996) concludedthat PIE resulted in strengthened ethical judgments andintentions and ascertained that PIE appears to develop inthe earliest stages of ethical reasoning. This renders PIEconceptually similar to ethical issue recognition, suggest-ing that the variable precipitates a moral immediacy andimperative that improves subsequent ethical judgments andintentions. Other studies show that PIE impacts ethicaljudgments and intentions (Cronan et al. 2005; Haines et al.2008), much in the same manner as issue recognition.Selling professionals’ ethical reasoning is affected bypersonal and environmental factors, as noted by a numberof theoretical/conceptual models presented in the market-ing ethics literature. Wotruba (1990) specified that variousdecision-maker attributes (i.e., demographics, attitudes,psychology) and situational moderators (i.e., organizationalculture, colleagues, and stakeholders) shape how sales-people react to ethical dilemmas. Ferrell et al. (2007) alsonoted that individual factors such as a salesperson’s moralphilosophy/development, as well as the sales organiza-tion’s ethical climate, can influence steps of ethical rea-soning. This current study is consistent with the Ferrellet al.’s (2007) sales ethics framework, in that a componentof culture is evaluated. Finally, Ingram et al. (2007) sug-gested that sales leaders and their exercise of managerialcontrol impact ethical climate and salespersons’ moraldevelopment, ultimately influencing individual judgmentsin ethical situations.This body of work provides credible support for the ideathat selling professional ethics is influenced by psycho-pathic attitudes (an individual characteristic), as well asworkplace bullying experiences and unethical corporatevalues (reflections of a sales organization’s culture/cli-mate). In addition, the theory of planned behavior (seeVillains, Victims, and Verisimilitudes: An Exploratory Study of Unethical Corporate Values… 137123Ajzen 1991) suggests that various behavioral attitudes andsocial mores influence an individual’s behavioral intentionsand subsequent actions, and psychopathy, workplace bul-lying, and unethical corporate values should be reflective ofthe typical kinds of attitudes and norms that affect decisionmaking and conduct. The study framework presented inFig. 1 highlights these relationships and shows that moralintensity (a situational characteristic), PIE (an affectivecomponent), ethical judgment, and ethical intention(components of decision making) are also interrelatedwithin the ethical reasoning process.Psychopathy in Sales OrganizationsThere is growing concern that individuals with psycho-pathic tendencies can negatively impact other employeesand disrupt the workplace. Psychopaths ‘‘…have no con- science, few emotions, and an inability to have any feelingsor empathy for other people,’’…making them ‘‘extraordi- narily cold, much more calculating and ruthless towardothers than most people are and a menace to the companiesthey work for and to society’’ (Boddy 2011, p. 368). Inaddition, psychopaths tend to have poor internal controlmechanisms, muted emotions, and the lack of a personalconscience that can lead to additional work problems(Boddy et al. 2010). Nevertheless, psychopaths are oftenextremely intelligent, and can manipulate colleagues while‘‘putting on a good front’’ for managers and customers.Psychopathy represents an emerging challenge for salesorganizations that foster a competitive, result-orientedwork environment.Citing past work in psychology, Boddy (2005) used thelabel ‘‘corporate psychopath’’ to describe individuals withdispositional tendencies that lead to problems at work, butother terms such as ‘‘executive psychopaths,’’ ‘‘industrialpsychopaths,’’ and ‘‘organizational sociopaths’’ have alsobeen used (Boddy 2011). Given the unique context inwhich they operate, corporate psychopaths are arguablyquite different from psychopaths who might harm people ingeneralized social situations. In other words, there are oftendistinctions that can be made between members of acompany who negatively interact with others, and personswho display illicit and/or harmful actions that are unrelatedto work (Boddy et al. 2010).Corporate psychopaths are different from normal func-tioning employees who interact positively with theircoworkers (Boddy 2010; Cooke and Michie 2001; Hare1991, 1999). For example, they can act in a glib mannerand often utilize an insincere charm with others (Boddyet al. 2010), so they are often viewed as ‘‘…being friendlyH2 (+)Unethical H1 (+) Bullying H3 (+) Corporate Experiences PsychopathyValues (Negative Acts)H7a (-) H6a (-) H5a (-)H6c (-) H6d (-)H7b (-) H5b (-) MoralH6b (-) IntensityH7d (-) H4a (+) H5c (-)H4b (+) H4c (+)Perceived Importance ofEthical IssueH7c (-) H8a (+) H8b(+) H5d (-)Ethical Ethical Judgment IntentionH9 (+)Fig. 1 Study framework138 S. Valentine et al.123and extroverted on first meeting, being an entertainingspeaker, being very smooth and being very persuasivewhen it suits them’’ (p. 7). Corporate psychopaths are also‘‘…able to lie convincingly when they need to…,’’ and they show ‘‘…such behaviors as bragging about them- selves, downplaying their own personal problems andblaming others for them, behaving like they feel that theyare above the rules’’ (Boddy et al. 2010, p. 7). In addition,they are effective at manipulating coworkers, doing so byhoning a set of networking/political skills that can givethem considerable influence over others. Finally, they areoften narcissistic, with a cold/calculating demeanor, andshallow emotional capacity, which can lead to diminishedcompassion and empathy for victims, even though theymight display disingenuous concern to the contrary.Consequently, psychopaths have the capacity to harmorganizations in general and the ethical context in partic-ular. Evidence suggests that if left unmanaged orunchecked, individuals exhibiting covert psychopathictendencies are highly disruptive and create an alarminglydysfunctional work setting (Boddy 2011). Indeed, psy-chopaths ‘‘…tend to pick on those workplace colleagues who are, because of their organizational position, mostunable to defend themselves’’ (Boddy 2011, p. 369). Whenpsychopaths are employed in positions of responsibility,they can utilize their authority to selfishly acquire power tofurther their own self-interests. As noted by Boddy et al.(2010, p. 2), ‘‘Leaders who are Corporate Psychopathsoften create the illusion of being successful leaders.However, they are attracted to these positions of leadershipbecause of the access to rewards and power that are vestedin these senior management positions.’’ The self-regulatedand boundary spanning nature of sales should be particu-larly attractive because of the considerable latitude given tosalespersons for them to work autonomously with littlemanagement oversight.Bullying in Sales OrganizationsWhile similar to corporate psychopathy, workplace bully-ing is often more closely tied to aggression (Glomb andLiao 2003; Neuman and Baron 1998) or incivility (An-dersson and Pearson 1999; Aquino and Bradfield 2000;Aquino et al. 1999; Cortina 2008). Bullying situations areoften precipitated by power differentials between organi-zational members (Vartia 1996), which can create a situ-ational context for mistreatment. Typical bullyingbehaviors include but are not limited to insults, excessiveteasing or sarcasm, exclusion, and offensive remarks (Salin2003), and bullying can be classified as being predatory ordispute related in nature (Langan-Fox and Sankey 2008,p. 63). Bullying behavior is predatory when ‘‘…the victim personally had done nothing provocative that mayreasonably justify the behavior of the bully’’ (Einarsen1999, p. 22). Conversely, dispute-related bullying isexperienced when conflict that is ongoing and unresolvedbecomes more personal in scope (e.g., Langan-Fox andSankey 2008). Explanations for why bullying occurs and


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