1 EXPLORING THE ETHICALITY OF FIRING EMPLOYEES WHO BLOG SEAN VALENTINE, GARY M. FLEISCHMAN, ROBERT SPRAGUE, AND LYNN GODKIN This exploratory study evaluates the ethical considerations related to employees fired for their blogging activities. Specifically, subject evaluations of two employee-related blogging scenarios were investigated with established ethical reasoning and moral intensity scales, and a measure of corporate ethical values was included to assess perceptions of organizational ethics. The first scenario involved an employee who was fired because of innocuous blogging, while the second vignette involved an employee who was fired because of work-related blogging. Survey data were collected from employed college students and working practitioners. The findings indicated that the subjects ethical judgments that firing an employee for blogging was unethical were negatively related to unethical intentions to fire an employee for blogging. Moral intensity was positively related to ethical judgments and negatively related to unethical intentions to fire an employee for blogging, while individual perceptions of ethical values were negatively associated with unethical intentions. Finally, subjects perceived that terminating an employee for innocuous blogging that did not target an employer was more ethically intense than was firing an employee for work-related blogging. The implications of the findings for human resource professionals are discussed, as are the study s limitations and suggestions for future research Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Keywords: ethical decision making, moral intensity, ethical values, termination, blogging A key Internet phenomenon of the early 21st century has been a dramatic rise in the number of Web logs (referred to generally and hereafter as blogs ). Many people currently chronicle their lives in online diaries and social networks; it is estimated that as many as 5 percent of American workers maintain a personal blog (Joyce, 2006). Some blogs are noteworthy because people may post personal or somewhat damaging information including gripes about work, past drug use, and drunken escapades. Unfortunately, these actions can result in ethical problems, such as the recent SEC inquiry into Whole Foods CEO John Mackey s Correspondence to: Sean Valentine, Department of Management, University of North Dakota, 293 Centennial Drive, Mailstop 8377, Grand Forks, ND , Phone: , Fax: , Human Resource Management, January/February 2010, Vol. 49, No. 1, Pp Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: /hrm.20335
2 88 HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 anonymous negative comments about competitor Wild Oats, which he submitted to Yahoo! Finance message boards over a period of approximately seven years (Davis, 2007, p. 3). Companies are even firing some bloggers because of what they publish online. Appendix A summarizes some of the legal situations and case law involving employees who have been fired as a result of their blogging activities. Many employees may be surprised to learn that they could be fired for doing no more than water cooler griping on their personal blogs (Estlund, Employment law 2002); employment law indeed indeed favors a favors a company s ability to terminate blogging employees. Legal company s ability to compliance, however, is not the only challenge because ethics is terminate blogging also a concern when HR professionals decide to fire employees employees. Legal who blog. In other words, a conceptual distinction exists between compliance, what is legal versus what is however, is ethical when making such decisions. In short, legality does not not the only always equate to ethicality. Our challenge because focus here pertains to the ethicality of decisions to terminate employees who blog. ethics is also a Because human resource managers have substantial discretion concern when HR professionals decide to evaluate employee blogging situations, it is critical that the to fire employees termination of blogging employees be consistent with societal who blog. norms of fairness and justice (or implied social contract), a principle that is explored in integrative social contracts theory (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994). An ethical organizational context must also be developed so that individuals respond more favorably to dilemmas experienced in the workplace. The purpose of this study, therefore, was to investigate the nature of ethical decision making in various terminated for blogging situations, particularly emphasizing the impact of perceived moral intensity and corporate ethical values on ethical judgment and unethical intentions to fire employees for blogging. 1 The subjects used in this study were employed in numerous business sectors; therefore, they provided a useful representation of broad ethical business norms. The study s framework (see Figure 1) is based on the idea that ethical decisions about blogging terminations, when consistent with perceptions of issue contingencies and corporate ethical values that raise awareness of ethical issues, should mitigate employeremployee conflict and reduce litigation because social contracts are honored and organizational ethical standards are supported (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994). The following research questions were investigated: What is the relationship between ethical judgments and unethical intentions in situations involving the termination of an employee for blogging? What is the relationship between perceived moral intensity and ethical reasoning in situations involving the termination of an employee for blogging? What is the relationship between perceived corporate ethical values and ethical reasoning in situations involving the termination of an employee for blog-ging? How does terminating an employee for innocuous blogging (compared to blogging about work) impact ethical reasoning? These questions are particularly important given that human resource policies related to employee blogging are an emerging concern, and no uniform guidelines have established standards about the acceptability of blogging activities. This research provides human resource professionals with a broader understanding of the ethical implications of firing employees who blog. While the law may allow such a practice, doing so might adversely affect management perceptions and the company s ethical culture. For instance, it is possible that such perceptions could precipitate negative workplace consequences such as decreased morale, job attitudes, and productivity, as well as increased absenteeism and turnover.
3 EXPLORING THE ETHICALITY OF FIRING EMPLOYEES WHO BLOG 89 Situation in which employee is fired for innocuous blogging (instead of work-related blogging) (+) (+) Perceived moral intensity in a situation involving an employee being fired for blogging (+) (-) (-) Judgment that firing an employee for blogging is unethical (-) Unethical intentions to fire an employee for blogging (+) (-) Corporate ethical values FIGURE 1. Summary of the Hypothsized Relationships Among the Blogging Situation, Moral Intensity, Corporate Ethical Values, and the Ethical Decision-Making Process The exploratory nature of this research also represents the first attempt to evaluate empirically some of the ethical issues related to blogging terminations, thus filling a noteworthy gap in the human resource management literature. This study is particularly unique compared to extant research because blogging situations span the boundary between work and self. Discerning how individuals view differences in their work and private lives should increase our understanding of any potential conflicts. Further, this study clarifies how the ethicality of blogging, and managers reactions to such blogging can vary, depending on issue-related factors embedded in the situation and ethical values that exist in a company s culture. The remainder of this article is organized as follows. The next section reviews the relevant literature and presents the hypotheses; it is followed by a discussion of this study s methodology. The empirical results are then summarized, and the paper concludes with an overview of the implications for human resource management. Literature Review Legal Issues In the United States, the majority of employment relationships are subject to the employment-at-will doctrine (Sprang, 1994). The employment-at-will doctrine provides that for an employment relationship of an indefinite term, either the employer or the employee may terminate the relationship at any time, with or without cause, as long as the termination does not violate a contract or employment-related statute (Cottone, 2002; Guz v. Bechtel Nat l, Inc., 2000; Walsh & Schwarz, 1996). All states (except Montana) and the District of Columbia have adopted this doctrine.
4 90 HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 While the employment-at-will doctrine can be managed effectively, taken to an extreme the agreement means that employers can dismiss persons for arbitrary or even irrational reasons: because of office politics, nepotism, preference A related issue that makes the present study unique is for left-handedness, astrological sign, or their choice of favorite sports team (Bird, 2004, p. 551). Also due to this doctrine, employees have minimal legal recourse if that blogging may they are fired for blogging span two social environments and (Sprague, 2007). Consequently, it is likely that unjust and unfair termination practices related to blogging would prompt ethical may therefore involve two sensitivity; further, ethical reasoning should be particularly profound in situations that involve conflicting social firing an employee for innocuous blogging that does not harm a contracts. For company. example, one macrosocial Integrative Social Contracts Theory contract specified Integrative social contracts theory provides one conceptual lens to by the U.S. understand the ethical reasoning process, suggesting that both Constitution is macro- and microlevel social contracts guide how individuals make freedom of ethical decisions based on preconceived ideas of right and wrong speech ; however, (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994). The a microsocial macrosocial contract includes contract specified important hypernorms that establish universal notions of right by a business and wrong about serious misconduct, or principles so fundamental to human existence that they may indicate that discussing serve as a guide in evaluating lower level moral norms (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994, p. 264). business matters in The microsocial contract is developed on a smaller scale in dif- a personal blog is unacceptable. ferent communities, professions, and organizations and establishes much of the substance of business ethics (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994, pp ). The microsocial contract applies to the ethical norms of the specific community in question and can vary, depending on the standards found in different groups, including businesses. In sum, integrative social contracts theory (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994) suggested that the accepted norms of behaviors are defined by the relevant social environmental context. A related issue that makes the present study unique is that blogging may span two social environments and may therefore involve two conflicting social contracts. For example, one macrosocial contract specified by the U.S. Constitution is freedom of speech ; however, a microsocial contract specified by a business may indicate that discussing business matters in a personal blog is unacceptable. Clearly, conflicts from varying social contracts may create ethical dilemmas for blogging employees. Some individuals may disregard organizational blogging policies because of their belief in freedom of speech, while others comply with blogging policies because they recognize organizational social contracts. Ethical Reasoning Ethical decision making is conceptualized in different ways throughout the business ethics literature. Despite disparities, such reasoning is generally composed of affective, cognitive, and behavioral components, which ultimately lead to either ethical conduct congruent with acceptable business norms and social mores or unethical conduct that breaks these standards (Ferrell & Gresham, 1985; Hunt & Vitell, 1986; Jones, 1991; Reidenbach & Robin, 1988, 1990; Rest, 1979, 1986, 1994; Trevino, 1986). One of the most prominent frameworks of ethical reasoning contains four steps that demonstrate how individuals face ethical problems from psychological and behavioral perspectives (Jones, 1991; Rest, 1986). The process begins with awareness of an ethical issue, followed by judging the behaviors in question. After making ethical judgments, individuals establish future intentions to behave in a manner consistent with ethical evaluations. Ethical intentions ultimately
5 EXPLORING THE ETHICALITY OF FIRING EMPLOYEES WHO BLOG 91 manifest in demonstrated ethical conduct (Jones, 1991; Rest, 1979, 1986, 1994). Of these four steps, ethical judgment and intention are arguably the most centralized components because individuals are directly assessing and reacting to ethical problems. While these variables are positively interrelated, ethical judgment and ethical intention represent highly distinct aspects of decision making, such that a decision about what is morally correct, a moral judgment, is not the same as a decision to act on that judgment, that is, to establish moral intent (Jones, 1991, p. 386). Ethical (or moral) judgment involves an individual s overall assessment of the ethicality of the actions in question, which generally includes broadly evaluating moral equity, justice, and fairness based on individual ethics (Reidenbach & Robin, 1988, 1990; Rest, 1986). These assessments stem from an individual s level of cognitive moral development, which progresses from the most basic motivations of social exchange to acknowledging higher-level ethical values (Jones, 1991; Trevino, 1986; Trevino & Nelson, 2007). Alternatively, ethical intentions drive how an individual actually plans to behave when confronting an ethical problem, or, more specifically, how the decision maker intends to act out his/her ethical judgment made in the previous step (Rest, 1986). Jones (1991) noted, The establishment of moral intent is important to the moral decisionmaking and behavior because intentions are important determinants of behavior (p. 387). Most researchers therefore assume that when an individual plans to behave in a certain manner, it is likely that he or she will, indeed, act the way he/she planned (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980). This thereby makes ethical intentions an adequate proxy measure for ethical conduct. Consequently, this study focuses on ethical judgments and unethical intentions to fire an employee for blogging, 2 which is consistent with prior work and facilitates analyzing core ethical reasoning (e.g., Jones, Massey, & Thorne, 2003). Judgments that firing a blogging employee are unethical should be negatively associated with unethical intentions to fire a blogging employee. The following hypothesis highlights this negative association occurring in questionable termination for blogging situations: Hypothesis 1: The judgment that firing an employee for blogging is unethical will be negatively related to the unethical intention to fire an employee for blogging. Moral Intensity When employees make ethical decisions, they are often influenced by the nature of the situation, including the outcomes, severity, and time-bound characteristics. In the ethics literature, these issue-contingent factors are embedded in a variable known as moral intensity, which is defined as a construct that captures the extent of issue-related moral imperative in a situation (Jones, 1991, p. 371). Moral intensity contains several dimensions that reflect different issue-related factors such as the strength of negative outcomes, agreement about the ethicality of behaviors, the likelihood and timing of outcomes, the closeness of others involved, and the strength of outcomes (Jones, 1991). 3 Previous research shows that these elements, alone and in concert, can influence different steps of ethical reasoning (Barnett, 2001; Barnett & Valentine, 2004; Carlson, Kacmar, & Wadsworth, 2002; Frey, 2000; Morris & McDonald, 1995; Singer, 1996; Singhapakdi, Vitell, & Franke, 1999; Singhapakdi, Vitell, & Kraft, 1996). The connection between moral intensity and ethical reasoning appears to be particularly relevant in situations that involve terminating employees who blog. For instance, the link between moral intensity and ethical reasoning is based on the concept of proportionality, meaning that accountability is situation-based, as well as the legal notion that punishment should appropriately fit misdeeds (Jones, 1991, p. 373). The tenets of integrated social contracts theory also suggest that various community standards should influence ethical evaluations of the issue-related factors embedded within an ethical situation or problem (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994). The just cause reasoning for
6 92 HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 terminating blogging employees who injure a company or exhibit insubordination is arguably linked to elements of moral intensity, such as the magnitude of consequences and probability of effects, which should influence the degree to which employment separation is considered an ethical management practice. Perceived moral intensity (i.e., harm to the company, likelihood of adverse impact, intensity Perceived moral intensity (i.e., harm of harm) should also increase when an employee participates in to the company, a public blog, thereby weakening a defense of invasion of privacy or likelihood of adverse intrusion upon seclusion and increasing decisions that blogging impact, intensity is unethical. Similarly, a noblogging work policy builds of harm) should greater consensus in the organization that unscrupulous Internet also increase postings are unacceptable, further when an employee elucidating community standards participates in that firing employees who participate in blogs is acceptable. a public blog, Alternatively, if employers do not develop blogging policies, invade private blogging Web sites to thereby weakening a defense of obtain information, and/or criticize employees for innocuous invasion of privacy blogging about matters other than work, employees who are fired for or intrusion upon such actions may be considered seclusion and victims. If this occurs, the perceptual components of moral intensity would be directed at the increasing decisions injustices and inequities targeted that blogging is at the employees rather than at unethical. the company, reducing support for a termination-for-blogging practice. These perceptions would also influence ethical judgments and unethical intentions associated with such action, causing an organization s members to believe that terminating employees for blogging is an unethical human resource practice. The following hypotheses are thus presented based on the positive link between moral intensity and ethical judgment and the negative relationship between moral intensity and unethical intentions that occurs when employee termination for blogging is questionable: Hypothesis 2: Perceived moral intensity will be positively related to the judgment that firing an employee for blogging is unethical. Hypothesis 3: Perceived moral intensity will be negatively related to the unethical intention to fire an employee for blogging. Ethical Values In addition to issue contingencies, perceptions of an organization s ethical values should also influence ethical reasoning in terminating an employee for blogging because past work suggests that stronger understanding of corporate and community standards can enhance ethical conduct (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994; Ferrell, Fraedrich, & Ferrell, 2008; Ferrell & Gresham, 1985; Trevino, 1986; Trevino & Nelson, 2007). For instance, integrative social contracts theory addresses the importance of corporate ethical values, because the theory s microsocial contract is based on the organization s accepted ethical norms (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994). Indeed, organizational ethical values (the ethical context) are the overriding principles regarding acceptable conduct that establish clear guidelines about how employees are expected to behave when working (Ferrell et al., 2008; Hunt, Wood, & Chonko, 1989; Trevino & Nelson, 2007). When these principles are clearly understood, ethical values can enhance company culture so that business ethics become acutely institutionalized (Hunt et al., 1989; Sims, 1991). Part of this process relies prominently on leadership s commitment to adopt ethical values, discuss ethics with employees, and behave ethically (Jose & Thibodeaux, 1999; Trevino, 1986; Trevino & Nelson, 2007; Viswesvaran, Deshpande, & Joseph, 1998). When employees witness such commitment, they begin to internalize ethical values through vicarious social learning and group socialization (Ferrell et al., 2008; Jose & Thibodeaux, 1999). This, in turn, encourages them to reference values when confronting ethical dilemmas on the job. There is reason to believe that employees perceptions of ethical values are particularly
7 EXPLORING THE ETHICALITY OF FIRING EMPLOYEES WHO BLOG 93 relevant to ethical decisions involving terminating employees who blog. For instance, ethical values should underscore the importance of justice and equity when dealing with personnel. When a manager breaks these basic tenets by unfairly terminating an individual for blogging (especially innocuous activities), employees should consider such action unethical. Further, individual managers perceptions of ethical values should make them less likely to terminate an employee for blogging because doing so would create a conflict between the company s ethical standards and the employee s actions. Previous research supports the notion that ethical values should strengthen ethical decision making or, likewise, weaken unethical reasoning (Barnett & Vaicys, 2000; Douglas, Davidson, & Schwartz, 2001; Jones & Kavanagh, 1996; Singhapakdi, Salyachivin, Virakul, & Veerayangkur, 2000; Valentine & Barnett, 2007). The following hypotheses based on these observations are therefore offered: Hypothesis 4: Perceived ethical values are positively related to the judgment that firing an employee for blogging is unethical. Hypothesis 5: Perceived ethical values are negatively related to the unethical intention to fire an employee for blogging. The Nature of Blogging and Ethical Decisions As mentioned, integrative social contracts theory (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994) implies that employee blogging may generate conflicts between the macrosocial and microsocial environments. When a manager fires an employee for innocuous blogging, therefore, this action should be considered substantially more unethical compared to firing an employee for blogging that targets an employer, given higher levels of perceived moral intensity. Firing innocuous bloggers would also violate the just cause principle because the company is not being harmed and employee insubordination is not an issue. We expect, therefore, that perceptions of moral intensity and ethical judgments would be strengthened in situations where employees are fired for innocuous blogging compared to situations where individuals are terminated for work-related blogging. Similarly, we expect that unethical intentions would be weakened in situations where employees are fired for innocuous blogging compared to situations where individuals are terminated for workrelated blogging. The following hypothesis based on these relationships is if employers do not presented: Hypothesis 6: A situation in which an employee is fired for innocuous blogging strengthens perceived moral intensity and judgments that firing an employee for blogging is unethical and weakens the unethical intention to fire an employee for blogging. Method The following subsections provide an overview of the sampling procedures and the questionnaire used to obtain the data for this investigation. Sample develop blogging policies, invade private blogging Web sites to obtain information, and/or criticize employees for innocuous blogging about matters other than work, employees who are fired for Data for this study were initially such actions may be collected from a convenience considered victims. sample of students attending select business law, accounting, management, and marketing classes at a medium-sized university in the western region of the United States. A self-report survey was used to collect information about students ethical attitudes, workplace experiences, and demographic characteristics, and the scenarios and measures included on this survey appear in Appendix B. Employed students were asked to complete the questionnaire so that participants were more likely to have the experience required to provide useful responses on the survey. Surveys were distributed during class time and participation was voluntary. In addition, the survey stated that responses were confidential and that anonymity would be ensured. A total of 133 completed surveys were returned.
8 94 HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 Men composed 51.5% of the sample (all numbers reported herein are valid percentages) and the participants average age was slightly more than 24 years. A majority indicated that they had some college education (58%): 21.4% had a bachelor s degree and 13.7% had some graduate work. We queried working Regarding student classification, 11.6% were juniors, 72.1% were students and seniors, and 16.3% were graduate students. A large majority were practitioners from also single (73.1%) and white many organizations (90%). From an employment standpoint, individuals averaged to account for the 2.97 years of experience in their present jobs; 20% were supervisors; 18.2% worked full-time; variety of ethical norms found in 74.5% worked part-time; and 7.3% were temporary employees. While different business many industries were represented, 34.5% of respondents organizations operated in the services in- departments and companies, dustry, 15.1% in the public/ government industry, 14.3% in consistently with the education industry, and 13.4% in the wholesale/retail industry. integrative social Just more than half (50.8%) of contracts theory firms had fewer than 100 employees; 24.2% had 100 to 1,000 employees; and 25% had more than (Donaldson & 1,000 employees. In terms of business ethics, individuals had re- Dunfee, 1994). ceived an average of 3.35 hours of ethics training from their organizations in the last year, and half had been given an ethics code that governed work conduct. Additional data were collected from a convenience sample of business practitioners working for organizations operating in a south-central region of the United States. The same self-report survey was distributed to individuals working in different for-profit, not-for-profit, civic, and educational organizations. Each individual was presented with a copy of the survey and asked to complete it, and some individuals were given additional surveys to share with coworkers. All surveys were to be returned in plain, sealed, unmarked envelopes that the researchers provided. In addition, one researcher collected some surveys in person and some were returned to that same researcher through cooperating respondents. Two respondent envelopes were returned in one mailing forwarded through traditional mail. Individuals returning surveys reported the organization for which they worked. The goal was to secure approximately 200 surveys from 100 firms, and data collection would end when these benchmarks were met. Ultimately, we collected 269 surveys from roughly 106 organizations; that resulted in a total of 401 usable surveys in the combined sample. In the practitioner sample, a majority of individuals were women (55.1%), and the participants average age was almost 30 years. A majority indicated that they had some college education (67.3%): 16.3% had a bachelor s degree and 10.6% had a high school diploma. Many individuals were single (59.9%) and white (60.6%). Employment information was also collected from the practitioners, with individuals reporting an average of 6.15 years of experience in their present jobs. Supervisors composed 20.1% of the sample; 64.8% worked full-time; and 32.6% worked part-time. While many sectors were represented, 25.9% of the firms operated in the wholesale/retail industry, 25.1% in the services industry, 12.2% in the education industry; 12.5% indicated other or a combination of industries. Almost half (44.3%) of the organizations had fewer than 100 employees; 25.2% had 100 to 1,000 employees; and 30.5% had more than 1,000 employees. Individuals had received an average of 7.10 hours of ethics training from their organizations in the last year, and more than half (62.6%) had been given an ethics code. Ethics Scenarios and Measures We queried working students and practitioners from many organizations to account for the variety of ethical norms found in different business departments and companies, consistently with integrative social contracts theory (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994). This investigation used two ethics scenarios that involved firing an employee for blogging. In addition, a number of previously developed
9 EXPLORING THE ETHICALITY OF FIRING EMPLOYEES WHO BLOG 95 measures were used with these scenarios to evaluate ethical perceptions. In completing the survey, subjects functioned as decision makers to assess whether the blogging employee should have been fired in the two comparative scenarios. Ethics Scenarios Many business ethics studies use scenarios to measure the ethical reasoning process (e.g., Barnett & Valentine, 2004; Reidenbach & Robin, 1988, 1990; Weber, 1992). This approach involves presenting questionable work situations and requiring participants to evaluate the nature of the dilemmas with items that tap different components of ethical decision making. Two such vignettes were developed for this study, and each one presented an employee who was terminated for different blogging activities. The first scenario depicted an employee who was fired for maintaining an Internet blog that did not contain any information about the employer (but did contain information that offended the employee s manager). The second scenario depicted an employee who was fired for maintaining an Internet blog that contained gripes about work. The goal was to develop similar scenarios with varying levels of ethical issues so that respondents ethical reasoning could be compared and evaluated. Using vignettes to assess ethical problems should also be congruent with the tenets of integrative social contracts theory because situational clues are embedded in the situations to prompt ethical reasoning (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994). Ethical Judgment Reidenbach and Robin s (1988, 1990) fouritem moral equity measure was used to assess whether individuals judgments that the questionable actions presented in the scenarios (or firing an employee for blogging) were unethical. Individuals were asked to evaluate the manager s action in each scenario using 7-point semantic differential scales composed of opposing adjectives connected to different facets of ethical judgments. Items were averaged so that higher composite scores represented increased ethical judgments, that is, the belief that firing an employee for blogging was unethical. The measure had a coefficient alpha of.91 in the first scenario and.96 in the second scenario. Unethical Intention Individuals unethical intentions to fire an employee for blogging were measured with a four-item measure (Barnett, Bass, & Brown, 1996; Barnett & Valentine, 2004). Individuals were asked to indicate the likelihood that they would engage in the manager s action in each scenario described using 7-point semantic differential scales composed of opposing intention-based adjectives. After reverse coding the four items to represent the likelihood that individuals would terminate an employee for blogging, items were averaged so that higher composite scores represented increased unethical intentions. The scale had a coefficient alpha of.94 in the first scenario and.96 in the second scenario. Moral Intensity Individuals perceptions of the moral intensity embedded in the issue-based scenarios were measured with six items adapted from past research (Singhapakdi et al., 1999; Singhapakdi et al., 1996). Individuals were asked to provide their opinions about the situations described in the scenarios. Items were rated with a 7-point scale anchored by 1 (strongly disagree) and 7 (strongly agree). Item values were averaged so that higher overall composite scores represented increased perceptions of moral intensity. Because the items were adapted slightly from the original measure to fit the issues this study explored, a principal components factor analysis using varimax rotation was initiated for each scenario to determine the scale s dimensionality. The results of both analyses indicated that two of the items (2 and 5) loaded on a second factor in both scenarios; therefore, these items were deleted from the factor model. The revised factor
10 96 HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 analytic models indicated that the remaining four items loaded on one factor in each scenario. All factor loadings were above.75; eigenvalues were above a value of 2.40 in each of the models; and more than 61% of the variance was explained. Because principal components analysis can be problematic when trying to uncover identifiable variables (Preacher & MacCallum, 2003), these models were reassessed using maximum likelihood estimation factor analytic procedures, and similar findings were produced. Once again, the results for both scenarios indicated that two of the items (2 and 5) loaded on a second factor; therefore, these items were deleted. The revised models for both scenarios showed that the remaining four items loaded on one factor. All factor loadings were above.64; eigenvalues were above a value of 1.93 in each of the models; and more than 48% of the variance was explained. The coefficient alphas for the measures were.78 in Scenario 1 and.83 in Scenario 2. Corporate Ethical Values Hunt et al. s (1989) five-item scale was used to evaluate individuals perceptions of ethical values or context. In particular, items focused on how a company used rewards and punishments to prompt ethical conduct and how managers behave from a moral standpoint. The measure, therefore, is effective at capturing an organization s overall approach to ethics. Statements were rated with a 7-point scale comprised of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), and scores were averaged so that higher values showed increased perceptions of ethical values. The scale s coefficient alpha was.71. Controls Because ethical reasoning can be affected by many individual characteristics, we included several controls in the analysis. For instance, sex, education, job tenure, and subject type were specified as controls. In addition, based on the results of a principal components factor analysis using varimax rotation, four items were taken from a short social desirability scale (Crowne & Marlowe, 1960; Fischer & Fick, 1993; Strahan & Gerbasi, 1972) to control for biased answers (Randall & Fernandes, 1991). Items were rated with a 7-point scale anchored by 1 (strongly disagree) and 7 (strongly agree). The scale s coefficient alpha was.67. Analysis Descriptive statistics were initially evaluated to determine the magnitude and direction of the focal variables. The correlations among the focal variables were then explored to ascertain bivariate relationships. Hierarchical regression analysis was used to test the study s proposed relationships among moral intensity, ethical judgments, unethical intentions, and corporate ethical values. Finally, repeated measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to determine the response differences in the focal variables across the two scenarios. Results The variable descriptive statistics and correlations for Scenarios 1 and 2 are summarized in Table I. Subject type was related to education and job tenure in both correlation models, and subject type was related to ethical judgment and moral intensity in Scenario 2. This indicated that these variables differed across the student and practitioner samples. Job tenure was negatively related to unethical intention and positively related to moral intensity in Scenario 2, implying that more senior employees experience reduced unethical intentions and perceive greater moral intensity in situations involving blogging terminations. In both scenarios, perceived moral intensity was associated with an increased judgment that terminating an employee for blogging was unethical, with moral intensity associated with a decreased unethical intention to fire an employee for blogging. These results lead one to believe that moral intensity prompts ethical reasoning when employees are terminated for blogging. Ethical judgment was associated with decreased unethical intention in both scenarios implying that ethical judgments
11 EXPLORING THE ETHICALITY OF FIRING EMPLOYEES WHO BLOG 97 TABLE I Descriptive Statistics and Correlation Analysis Variable M SD Scenario 1 (N = 347) 1. Sex a Education b Job tenure c Subject type d ***.21*** Social desirability Ethical judgment * Unethical intention *** Moral intensity ***.42*** Corporate ethical values *.10.15** Scenario 2 (N = 348) 1. Sex a Education b Job tenure c Subject type d ***.21*** Social desirability Ethical judgment * Unethical intention * *** Moral intensity **.12*.05.60***.55*** Corporate ethical values *.06.15**.11* -- a 1 = male, 2 = female. b 1 = High school diploma; 2 = some college; 3 = bachelor s degree; 4 = some graduate work; 5 = graduate degree. c In years. d 1 = student; 2 = practitioner. *p <.05, **p <.01, ***p <.001.
12 98 HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 result in lower intentions to behave unethically in situations that involve firing an employee for blogging. The perceived corporate ethical values variable was associated with decreased unethical intention in Scenarios 1 and 2 and increased moral intensity in Scenario 2. This suggests that an ethical context can enhance ethical reasoning in terminating employees for blogging. Finally, the social desirability measure was related only to ethical judgment (in Scenario 1) and corporate ethical values in both scenarios. It was concluded, therefore, that impression bias was not a serious concern in this study. The results of the hierarchical regression analysis are presented in Table II. In Scenario 1 with ethical judgment specified as the dependent variable, the addition of the control variables did not generate a significant change in R-square. The addition of moral intensity, however, caused a significant change in R-square, and moral intensity was associated with strengthened ethical judgment. With unethical intention specified as the dependent variable, the addition of the control variables once again did not generate a significant change in R-square. The addition of ethical judgment did cause a significant R-square change in the model, and ethical judgment was negatively related to unethical intention. Finally, adding moral intensity and corporate ethical values to the model in the final step caused another significant change in R-square. Both of these variables were negatively related to unethical intention. In Scenario 2 with ethical judgment specified as the dependent variable, the addition of the control variables did not generate a significant change in R-square; however, subject type was negatively related to ethical judgment. The addition of moral intensity caused a significant R-square change, and TABLE II Hierarchical Regression Analysis Ethical Judgment Scenario 1 Scenario 2 Dependent Variables Unethical Intention Ethical Judgment Unethical Intention Independent variables β β β β Sex a Education b Job tenure c ** Subject type d **.14* Social desirability Step 1 Δ R * Moral intensity.48***.60*** Corporate ethical values Ethical judgment.59***.79*** Step 2 Δ R 2.24***.34***.35***.60*** Moral intensity.18***.09* Corporate ethical values.10*.08* Step 3 Δ R 2.03***.01** Model F 17.75*** 26.79*** 29.04*** 79.90*** Adjusted R N a 1 = male; 2 = female. b 1 = High school diploma; 2 = some college; 3 = bachelor s degree; 4 = some graduate work; 5 = graduate degree. c In years. d 1 = student; 2 = practitioner. *p <.05, **p <.01, ***p <.001.
13 EXPLORING THE ETHICALITY OF FIRING EMPLOYEES WHO BLOG 99 moral intensity was positively related to ethical judgment. With unethical intention specified as the dependent variable, the addition of the control variables did cause a significant change in R-square, and unethical intention was negatively related to job tenure and positively related to subject type. The addition of ethical judgment also generated a significant change in R-square in Step 2 of the model, and ethical judgment was negatively related to unethical intention. Finally, adding moral intensity and corporate ethical values to the regression model in Step 3 caused a significant R-square change. Both moral intensity and perceived corporate ethical values were negatively related to unethical intention. Taken as a whole, the hierarchical regression results provided adequate statistical support for Hypotheses 1, 2, 3, and 5. The results of the repeated measures ANOVA models are highlighted in Table III. The mean values for the moral intensity and ethical judgment variables were significantly higher in Scenario 1 compared to the mean values in Scenario 2 (p <.001). Further, the mean value for unethical intention was significantly lower in Scenario 1 than was the mean value identified in Scenario 2. These findings provided strong support for Hypothesis 6, which stated that moral intensity and ethical judgments are strengthened and unethical intentions are weakened when an employee is terminated for innocuous blogging (compared to work-related blogging). The next section discusses the implications of these findings, the limitations of this research, and some suggestions for future inquiry directed at blogging, ethics, and human resource management. Discussion and HR Implications This study s findings indicated that the relationships among individuals ethical judgments, unethical intentions, perceived moral intensity, and perceived ethical values were consistent with past ethics research. A judgment that firing an employee for blogging is unethical was negatively related to the unethical intention to fire the blogging employee, supporting Hypothesis 1 and further validating the Rest (1986) model of ethical reasoning. In both scenarios, perceptions of moral intensity were positively related to ethical judgments and negatively related to unethical intentions, providing support for Hypotheses 2 and 3 as well as Jones s (1991) moral intensity framework. Although Hypothesis 4 was not supported, perceived ethical values significantly weakened unethical intentions to terminate an employee for blogging. This provided support for Hypothesis 5, however, as well as the notion that ethical values enhance facets of ethical reasoning. Our findings also supported Hypothesis 6 because individuals showed strengthened levels of perceived moral intensity and ethical judgments and weakened unethical intentions in Scenario 1 (employee fired for innocuous blogging) compared to Scenario 2 (employee TABLE III Repeated Measures ANOVA Variable M SD N F Value Partial eta-squared Moral intensity Scenario ***.13 Scenario Ethical judgment Scenario ***.25 Scenario Unethical intention Scenario ***.17 Scenario *** p <.001.
14 100 HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 fired for work-related blogging). This finding is also consistent with Jones (1991), who theorized that situations containing more egregious ethical problems prompt stronger perceptions of moral intensity, perceptions that lead to increased ethical reasoning. Finally, the results overall answered the study s four research questions. The study s findings are noteworthy and contribute to the ethics field in general and the emerging blogging literature in particular. The findings are also consistent with previously developed frameworks of integrative social contracts, social learning/ exchange, ethical reasoning, and Human resource moral intensity. The human resource implications are discussed professionals should in the next section. carefully weigh the magnitude Implications for Human Resource Professionals of employees As mentioned, this investigation consequences and of the ethical issues related to terminating blogging employees is realize that negative unique because it intersects both work and personal issues. This perceptions will study therefore enhances understanding of how individuals per- generally escalate ceive these boundaries, as well as when firings are how such perceptions affect their ethical evaluations of blogging terminations. Integrative social con- deemed unethical and unfair. tracts theory illustrates that firing employees for purely innocuous blogging is likely viewed as more unethical compared to firing individuals for work-related blogging. This may possibly be due to conflicts between the macrosocial (societal) contract of free speech and the microsocial (organizational) contract of blogging limitations. In summary, subjects corroborated this theoretical contention by respecting and supporting the boundary between work and personal endeavors. The moral intensity construct was also a key factor in this boundary as it pertains to ethical reasoning and innocuous blogging. The results associated with Hypothesis 6 (Table III) provided support for an increase in moral intensity in the innocuous blogging scenario. This, in turn, strengthened ethical judgment while weakening unethical intentions to fire an employee for blogging. As such, more deeply understanding the relationship between moral intensity and ethical reasoning would be beneficial for human resource professionals. A key element of the moral intensity scale is magnitude of consequences, defined as the sum of the harms (or benefits) done to victims (or beneficiaries) of the moral act in question (Jones, 1991, p. 374). Human resource managers should be cognizant that relying on lesser disciplinary actions rather than terminations may cause coworkers to view blogging circumstances as more trivial. Employee dissonance is more likely to occur, however, when an employee is terminated, due to the harsh consequences. Human resource professionals should carefully weigh the magnitude of employees consequences and realize that negative perceptions will generally escalate when firings are deemed unethical and unfair. The study s innocuous blogging scenario demonstrated this process because subjects likely believed that the consequences far exceeded the nature of the questionable blogging actions. Employees who remain with the firm will likely perceive that terminating innocuous blogging employees, and to a lesser extent work-related bloggers, constitutes a breach in trust of the implied microsocial contract of employment (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994). This could detrimentally impact morale and increase turnover intentions. Essentially, an organization that terminates individuals for innocuous blogging may experience employee backlash. Managing Organizational Ethics Our results suggest that perceived ethical values and the environments that advance these values are negatively associated with unethical intentions to fire blogging employees. Integrative social contracts theory supports the importance of these values and suggests that employees are affected by an implied microsocial contract (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994). Consistent with the macrosocial
15 EXPLORING THE ETHICALITY OF FIRING EMPLOYEES WHO BLOG 101 contract containing universal hypernorms, the microsocial contract is based on the company s accepted ethical norms (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994). Human resource managers should therefore manage ethics by establishing norms consistent with ethical best practices. For example, human resource professionals may enhance the organization s ethical culture with programs and written documents that promote and enforce ethics codes and provide ethics training to employees (see, e.g., Chen, Sawyers, & Williams, 1997; Sims, 1991; Sims & Keon, 1999; Trevino & Nelson, 2007; White & Lam, 2000). Blogging-based ethical issues often stem from attitudinal and communication breakdowns between management and personnel. Human resource professionals should therefore routinely monitor employees job attitudes and their perceptions of ethical values as blogging policies are developed and enforced. Fair blogging practices should ideally encourage employees to view the company more positively. Further, because such perceptions are driven by mutual trust that minimizes risk of employment-at-will ethical indiscretions, employees ethical reasoning should be enhanced. An ethical context should also benefit the organization because ethical values strengthen workplace morale (Podsakoff, MacKenzie, Paine, & Bacharach, 2000), heighten employee work motivation, enhance work attitudes (Hunt et al., 1989; Martins, Eddleston, & Veiga, 2002), and reduce turnover intentions (Igbaria, 1991). If employees perceive that their company functions in a fair and just manner (Cropanzano, Byne, Bobocel, & Rupp, 2001), they should be less likely to complain about the firm in their blogs and more inclined to shape their beliefs and behaviors to fit ethical standards (Sims, 1991). Developing Blogging Standards The results of the study suggest that organizations may be more successful at managing employee blogging by developing human resource standards for blogging and by encouraging employees to focus on social contracts that the employment context creates. Standards governing such actions should clearly identify the types of blogging activities that are acceptable, and standards should be conveyed to employees Standards governing through training to strengthen individuals moral obligation to such actions should act according to acceptable codes of conduct while employed with clearly identify the the organization. Indeed, the tenets of integrative social contracts types of blogging theory indicate that such employment contracts include socially activities that are implied standards of consent and acceptable, and exit, whereby an employee who chooses to remain with a firm is, standards should in fact, consenting to its standards and rules through contin- be conveyed ued association (Donaldson & to employees Dunfee, 1994, p. 263). Employees are therefore bound ethically to through training live by the standards in place if to strengthen they choose not to leave their current work situations (Donaldson & Dunfee, 1994, p. 263). individuals moral Managers should consider revising employee handbooks, em- obligation to act according to ployee training and orientation procedures, and ethics codes to acceptable codes include standards and expectations pertaining to both innocuous and work-related employee of conduct while blogging. Firms should also consider documenting disciplinary employed with the organization. procedures in an employee handbook and provide unethical blogging-related examples that would constitute grounds or just cause for formal dismissal procedures. Human resource professionals should be cautious, however, to ensure that employees consider such standards fair. Limitations and Future Research Although this exploratory study significantly contributes to the literatures addressing empirical ethics and blogging, some limitations need to be addressed. The data were collected exclusively using a self-report questionnaire, which increases the possibility of common method bias. We attempted,
16 102 HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 however, to minimize same-source bias and strengthen external validity by using both working student and practitioner samples. Also, although we controlled for social desirability, we did not control for other factors such as individual dispositions and attitudes. For example, individuals who agreed to participate in the study could have been relatively conscientious or altruistic, increasing the likelihood of self-selection bias. In addition, the method of collecting the two convenience samples did not permit testing nonresponse bias. Furthermore, generalizing the results to other types of employees and regions should be limited, and the crosssectional nature of the study does not permit any in-depth discussions of causality. Future research should investigate ethical issues pertaining to unique blogging scenarios from specific business disciplines such as management, marketing, finance, and accounting in order to compare and contrast subject perceptions. These studies should also use demographically diverse subject samples. Also, because this study focused on the second and third steps of Rest s (1986) model, future research should investigate how other components of ethical reasoning are associated in different blogging situations. By more fully investigating the ethical issues associated with employee blogging, human resource professionals should be able to develop more appropriate personnel policies that facilitate positive work performance. Future research may also focus on the various dimensions of moral intensity (e.g., social consensus and magnitude of consequences) in relation to blogging-related ethical reasoning. Notes 1. Ethical judgments include comprehensive evaluations of justice, fairness, and rightness/wrongness, while unethical intentions involve future plans to behave inappropriately based on unethical evaluations. Moral intensity includes issue contingencies found in a situation that influence decision making. 2. Based on past work, ethical judgment and ethical intentions are positively related. The ethical intentions variable, however, was reverse-coded in this study to develop more coherent hypotheses. An unethical intention to fire an employee for blogging should therefore be negatively related to ethical judgment, moral intensity, and ethical values as discussed in the literature review. 3. Moral intensity dimensions: 1. Magnitude of consequences (severity of outcomes); 2. Social consensus (agreement about ethicality); 3. Probability of effect (likelihood of impact); 4. Temporal immediacy (time related to outcomes); 5. Proximity (closeness to those affected); 6. Concentration of effect (strong outcomes for those affected). Acknowledgments The authors thank Karen Page, Grant Lindstrom, Linda Kidwell, Stacey Baker, and Terri Rittenburg of the University of Wyoming for their assistance with collecting data for this study, as well as Asia Peek for her work on data coding. SEAN VALENTINE (DBA, Louisiana Tech University) is professor of management in the College of Business and Public Administration at the University of North Dakota. His research and teaching interests include business ethics, human resource management, and organizational culture. His work has appeared in journals such as Human Relations, Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, Journal of Business Research, Behavioral Research in Accounting, and Journal of Business Ethics. GARY M. FLEISCHMAN (Ph.D., Texas Tech University) is the McGee, Hearne, and Paiz Faculty Scholar in Accounting in the College of Business at the University of Wyoming. His research and teaching interests include business ethics and tax policy. His work has appeared in journals such as Behavioral Research in Accounting, Research on Professional Responsibility and Ethics in Accounting, the International Journal of Accounting, and Journal of Business Ethics.
17 EXPLORING THE ETHICALITY OF FIRING EMPLOYEES WHO BLOG 103 ROBERT SPRAGUE (JD, University of Denver) is assistant professor in the College of Business at the University of Wyoming, where he teaches law for managers, business law for entrepreneurs, and commercial law courses. Professor Sprague has published articles analyzing legal issues associated with firing employees for blogging, employers use of online information when making hiring decisions, workplace surveillance, and employee privacy. LYNN GODKIN (Ph.D., University of North Texas) is professor of management in the College of Business at Lamar University. His research and teaching interests include business ethics, organizational learning, and economic development. He has published in journals such as Journal of Business Ethics, Health Care Management Review, Competitiveness Review, Psychological Reports, and Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal. References Ajzen, I., & Fishbein, M. (1980). Understanding attitudes and predicting social behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Armour, S. (2005, June 15). Warning: Your clever little blog could get you fired. USA Today, p. 1B. Barnett, T. (2001). Dimensions of moral intensity and ethical decision-making: An empirical study. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31(5), Barnett, T., Bass, K., & Brown, G. (1996). Religiosity, ethical ideology, and intentions to report a peer s wrongdoing. Journal of Business Ethics, 15(11), Barnett, T., & Vaicys, C. (2000). The moderating effect of individuals perceptions of ethical work climate on ethical judgments and behavioral intentions. Journal of Business Ethics, 27(4), Barnett, T., & Valentine, S. (2004). Issue contingencies and marketers recognition of ethical issues, ethical judgments and behavioral intentions. Journal of Business Research, 57(4), Bird, R. C. (2004). Rethinking wrongful discharge: A continuum approach. University of Cincinnati Law Review, 73(2), Blachman, J. (2005, August 31). Job posting. New York Times, p. A19. Brown, J. (2006, January 8). Prof s firing stirs blog debate. Denver Post, p. C-01. Carlson, D. S., Kacmar, K. M., & Wadsworth, L. L. (2002). The impact of moral intensity dimensions on ethical decision making: Assessing the relevance of orientation. Journal of Managerial Issues, 14(1), Chen, A. Y., Sawyers, R. B., & Williams, P. F. (1997). Reinforcing ethical decision making through corporate culture. Journal of Business Ethics, 16(8), Cottone, E. R. (2002). Employee protection from unjust discharge: A proposal for judicial reversal of the terminable-at-will doctrine. Santa Clara Law Review, 42(4), Cropanzano, R., Byne, Z. S., Bobocel, D. R., & Rupp, D. E. (2001). Moral virtues, fairness heuristics, social entities, and other denizens of organizational justice. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 58(2), Crowne, D. P., & Marlowe, D. (1960). A new scale of social desirability independent of psychopathology. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 24(4), Davis, J. (2007, July 14). PR fumble may lead to legal woe. Rocky Mountain News, p. 3. Donaldson, T., & Dunfee, T. W. (1994). Toward a unified conception of business ethics: Integrative social contracts theory. Academy of Management Review, 19(2), Douglas, P. C., Davidson, R. A., & Schwartz, B. N. (2001). The effect of organizational culture and ethical orientation on accountants ethical judgments. Journal of Business Ethics, 34(2), Estlund, C. L. (2002). How wrong are employees about their rights, and why does it matter? New York University Law Review, 77(1), Ferrell, O. C., Fraedrich, J., & Ferrell, L. (2008). Business ethics: Ethical decision making and cases (7th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Ferrell, O. C., & Gresham, L. G. (1985). A contingency framework for understanding ethical decision making in marketing. Journal of Marketing, 49(3), Fischer, D. G., & Fick, C. (1993). Measuring social desirability: Short forms of the Marlowe-Crowne Social
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20 106 HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 APPENDIX A Blogging-Related Dismissals Reference Event Resulting Action Armour, 2005 Heather Armstrong, a Web designer, posted comments about the workplace on her personal blog, including comments regarding the office Christmas party. Dismissal Armour, 2005 Blachman, 2005 Brown, 2006 Foley, 2005 Hansen, 2005 Hong, 2007 Joyce, 2005 Olsen, 2004 Pham, 2005 Simonetti, 2004 Wenner, 2002 A Wells Fargo employee blog made fun of some coworkers on his blog. Nadine Haobsh, an associate beauty editor at Ladies Home Journal, who was about to resign and take a job at Seventeen, blogged about work. A professor at DeVry University criticized the school on her blog. Mark Jen started his own blog soon after starting work for Google. Shortly thereafter, he posted his impressions of a Google sales meeting. A contractor working for Microsoft took pictures of Apple computers being delivered to the Microsoft campus and posted the pictures on his blog. Mark Pilgrim s supervisor discovered Pilgrim s personal blog, which included posts regarding Pilgrim s past addictions; the supervisor demanded that Pilgrim take down the blog and Pilgrim refused. Rachel Mosteller posted comments on her blog critical of her employer (including the statement I really hate my place of employment ); Mosteller used a pseudonym, did not name her company or where it was based, and did not name her coworkers. Joyce Park, a Web developer for Friendster, a company known for breaking new ground in online social networking and promoting self-expression among peers, posted three publicly available items about work on her blog, Troutgirl. A Starbucks supervisor used an anonymous blog to talk with family/friends and to vent frustration about personal life/work; he complained on his blog when a manager would not let him go home because of an illness. A Delta Airlines flight attendant published pictures of herself (in relatively risqué poses) in her uniform aboard a Delta plane. A reporter at the Houston Chronicle posted information about family life and local politicians on his personal blog. Dismissal Dismissed from Ladies Home Journal; employment offer from Seventeen rescinded Dismissal Dismissal Dismissal Dismissal Dismissal Dismissal Dismissal Dismissal Dismissal
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