Why Employee Volunteering Breeds Destructive Workplace Behavior

One emerging corporate trend is having business ethics (yes, having actual ethics). But does it ultimately lead to a Jekyll/Hyde scenario?

Fortune 100 companies to start-ups are showing an increased commitment to environmental and community-based causes. It is thought that investing in (and sticking to) ethical standards is a win-win situation: businesses do good and are rewarded with increased employee satisfaction and retention.[1]

Corporate leaders looking to do good — and reap the rewards of doing so — are increasingly turning to employee volunteer programs. According to a Deloitte study (2017), 38 percent of respondents have access to company-sponsored volunteer programs[2] and nearly 90 percent of employees believe that companies who sponsor volunteering activities offer a better overall working environment. For a leader looking to capitalize on win-win strategies, volunteering appears to be a sure bet.

But is this truly the case? Because things can take a dark turn.

As noted by our very own Shu-Tsen Kuo, “good” people (leaders included) often go bad. [3] Kuo points out an interesting fact: Environmentally conscience Prius drivers are more likely to cut off pedestrians. Scientists have discovered that this strange phenomenon exists because “good” people are better able to explain away subsequent bad behavior.

Coined moral licensing, this theory argues that people who initially commit good deeds are provided a “license” to perform morally questionable behavior later on.[4] In a prime example of moral licensing, Kuo goes on to describe how leaders that initially act in an ethical manner one day are more likely to display abusive leadership the next day.

It follows that leaders attempting to better their work environment by adopting volunteer opportunities may instead cultivate a more destructive working atmosphere.

A recent study published in Journal of Applied Psychology found that employee volunteering was positively related to “bad” workplace behavior via moral licensing.[5] Specifically, the more time and effort employees spent on volunteering, the more they perceived a surplus of moral credits, which fostered a sense of entitlement to do something “bad” — and ultimately resulted in an increase in deviant workplace behavior (e.g., cursing at someone at work, littering the work environment).

Thankfully, morally licensed individuals do not always cash in their moral credits. It is believed that when environments are positive and promote a consistent message of fair and ethical behavior, individuals will be less likely to act out their moral license. Consequently, the study also found that the positive effect between employee volunteer work and subsequent deviant behavior was not found for employees who reported high perceptions of organizational justice (those who believed the company and the people they work for are fair and just).

Therefore, since it is not recommended or wise to discourage employees from volunteering, leaders hoping to craft a win-win situation by implementing employee volunteer programs should first work on promoting a just work environment — and avoid anyone “breaking bad.”



[1] https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/ news/all-things-work/pages/doing-well-by-doing-good.aspx

[2] Deloitte (2017). 2017 Deloitte Volunteerism Survey.

[3] https://fisher.osu.edu/blogs/leadreadtoday/blog/happy-halloween-transfo…

[4] Merritt, A. C., Effron, D. A., Monin, B. (2010). Moral self-licensing: When being good frees us to be bad. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 344-357.

[5] Loi, T. I., Kuhn, K. M., Sahaym, A., Butterfield, K. D., & Tripp, T. M. (2020). From helping hands to harmful acts: When and how employee volunteering promotes workplace deviance. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.