Good apples in good barrels: Conscientious people are more responsive to code enforcement

Jerel E. Slaughter, Dylan A. Cooper, Stephen W. Gilliland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Meta-analytic findings suggest that strongly enforcing ethical codes of conduct reduces unethical behaviour. However, this conclusion is based on a limited number of studies, leading ethics scholars to suggest that we need to know more about the effects of codes. Furthermore, the importance of understanding how individual differences may interact with situational characteristics to influence unethical behaviour has long been recognized, but few studies have examined both personal and situational variables. Using norm focus theory as an organizing framework, the authors argue that enforcement of an ethical code of conduct and individual-level conscientiousness interacts to influence unethical behaviour. In Study 1, participants attended a laboratory session in which a code of conduct was presented and the participants had the opportunity to earn additional compensation if they acted unethically. Participants engaged in less unethical behaviour after they observed strict enforcement, but this was qualified by an enforcement x conscientiousness interaction: Strict enforcement led to lower unethical behaviour only among those who were more conscientious. In Study 2, a survey of working adults showed that the relation between code enforcement and unethical behaviour was mediated by a focus on injunctive norms, but only among those who were more conscientious. The findings therefore indicate that there are important boundary conditions on the effects of codes of conduct. Practitioner points: When people are aware of a code of conduct, but have no information about how strongly the code of conduct is enforced, they view enforcement as similar to a situation wherein they witness weak enforcement. Strongly enforced codes of conduct serve to (1) increase the importance of avoiding unethical behaviour, and (2) reduce the magnitude of unethical behaviour, but only among those who are more conscientiousness. To ensure reduction of unethical behaviour, organizations must strongly enforce codes and select employees who are highly conscientious. Alternatively, organizations may test different methods of enforcement to identify those that are effective in reducing unethical behaviour regardless of how conscientious employees are.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)834-860
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2020


  • conscientiousness
  • ethical code of conduct
  • norm focus theory
  • unethical behaviour
  • workplace deviance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management


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