Above the Law? How Motivated Moral Reasoning Shapes Evaluations of High Performer Unethicality

Elizabeth M. Campbell, David T. Welsh, Wei Wang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Recent revelations have brought to light the misconduct of high performers across various fields and occupations who were promoted up the organizational ladder rather than punished for their unethical behavior. Drawing on principles of motivated moral reasoning, we investigate how employee performance biases supervisors’ moral judgment of employee unethical behavior and how supervisors’ performancefocus shapes how they account for moral judgments in promotion recommendations. We test our model in three studies: a field study of 587 employees and their 124 supervisors at a Fortune 500 telecom company, an experiment with two samples of working adults, and an experiment that directly varied explanatory mechanisms. Evidence revealed a moral double standard such that supervisors rendered less punitive judgment of the unethical acts of higher performing employees. In turn, supervisors’ bottom-line mentality (i.e., fixation on achieving results) influenced the degree to which they incorporated their punitive judgments into promotability considerations. By revealing the moral leniency afforded to higher performers and the uneven consequences meted out by supervisors, our results carry implications for behavioral ethics research and for organizations seeking to retain and promote their higher performers while also maintaining ethical standards that are applied fairly across employees.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Applied Psychology
StateAccepted/In press - 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • bottom-line mentality
  • high performers
  • moral reasoning
  • unethical behavior

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology


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