Featured Collaborator of the Month: Linda Treviño

Interview with Linda Treviño, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behavior and Ethics, Smeal College of Business

What is the main research for which you are known?

I am known primarily for having helped to create a field of research that I would describe as the social scientific study of individual ethical decision making and behavior in organizational context. 

Prior to my work, and a conceptual model that I introduced in 1986, there was little social science research on the topic.  My model laid some of the groundwork for thinking about individual ethical and unethical behavior in organizations as the product of individual characteristics, organizational characteristics (such as cultures and reward systems), and the interaction of these. The message is that it isn’t just “bad apples” or “bad barrels” that are to blame for unethical behavior. Often it is both or the combination of the two that creates bad behavior. 

I have studied ethical and unethical behavior in the business context, but also in the context of cheating in higher education, including the positive role that honor codes play in reducing cheating. This is similar to work I have done on the effect of ethics codes and ethics programs relative to ethical cultures in business organizations. Ethical cultures are more important than are codes and programs.  In recent years, my colleagues and I have also initiated research on ethical leadership. Along with others, we have been able to demonstrate how important ethical leadership (at a variety of levels) is for desired ethics-related outcomes.  Leaders are the carriers of the system’s messages about behavioral expectations because they role model and hold others accountable (or not).

How does your work help companies that want to improve themselves as ethical systems?

My research demonstrates why it is important for organizations to create structures and systems that support doing the right thing (because in the ethics realm, most normal people are susceptible to external influences). 

My work also demonstrates the importance of a variety of these structures and systems, both formal and informal ones. For example, performance management systems are crucial, and leaders at all levels have an extraordinary influence (both good and bad) on followers through their behaviors, the messages they send (subtle and not so subtle), and the cultures they create.  

If you could only highlight one paper or research finding that relates to Ethical Systems which one would it be and why?

I’ll choose a meta-analytic review (a study of studies) that my colleagues and I conducted. For the first time, it statistically combines and analyzes the research on unethical behavior in organizations and demonstrates that both individual characteristics and organizational context influences (such as ethical climate) are important influences on individuals’ unethical organizational behavior. It also demonstrates that we need more research on the interactions between these two types of influence.

Tell us about one of your current or future research projects.

Some of the work I’m currently involved in is a bit different from my “normal” research.  But, I’m involved in multiple projects that research responses to scandal, on the part of the media as well as a variety of other stakeholders – from organizational members to former members to future members. This research was inspired largely by my own organization’s brush with scandal in 2011 when the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal hit Penn State.

If you could only give one piece of advice to companies, what would it be?

If you’re seeing unethical behavior in your organization, do not assume that you just have to rid yourself of a bad apple (or two). The problem likely goes beyond one person or a few people. Instead, conduct an ethical culture audit to learn what it is about the culture that is supporting that behavior because something is. For example, is your culture somehow rewarding that behavior, sending a message that such behavior is expected or accepted? Are leaders sending the wrong messages or creating unethical unit cultures? An honest ethical culture audit can surface such problems so that they can be fixed.  


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