Ethical leadership reduces the frequency of absenteeism for public sector employees.

Shahidul Hassan is assistant professor

of public management in the John Glenn

School of Public Affairs at The Ohio State

University. His research focuses on how

leadership and managerial practices

in government organizations infl uence

motivation, commitment, and performance

of employees.


Bradley E. Wright is associate profes-

sor of public management and policy in

the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies

at Georgia State University. His research

focuses on how employee attitudes and

behavior are infl uenced by the interaction

between characteristics of the employee

and the employee’s organizational work



Gary Yukl is professor of management

at the University of Albany, State University

of New York. He is a fellow of the American

Psychological Association, the American

Psychological Society, the Society for

Industrial-Organizational Psychology, and

the Academy of Management. He has pub-

lished many articles in professional journals

and is author of several books, including

Leadership in Organizations (8th

ed., Prentice Hall, 2013). He has received

several awards for his research, including

two lifetime achievement awards: the 2007

Walter Ulmer Applied Research Award from

the Center for Creative Leadership and the

2011 Eminent Leadership Scholar Award

from the Academy of Management Network

of Leadership Scholars.


Does Ethical Leadership Matter in Government? Effects on Organizational Commitment, Absenteeism, and Willingness to Report Ethical Problems 333

Public Administration Review,

Vol. 74, Iss. 3, pp. 333–343. © 2014 by

The American Society for Public Administration.

DOI: 10.1111/puar.12216.

Shahidul Hassan The Ohio State University

Bradley E. Wright Georgia State University

Gary Yukl University at Albany

Recent ethical scandals involving managers in government organizations have highlighted the need for more research on ethical leadership in public sector organizations. To assess the consequences of ethical leader- ship, 161 managers in a large state government agency and 415 of their direct reports were surveyed, and person- nel records were obtained to measure absenteeism. Results indicate that after controlling for the eff ects of employee characteristics, perceptions of procedural fairness, and supportive leader behavior, ethical leadership reduced absenteeism and had a positive infl uence on organiza- tional commitment and willingness to report ethical problems. Implications of the fi ndings and suggestions for future research are presented.

Public administration scholars have long dis-cussed the importance of managerial ethics from a normative perspective by specifying what public managers should do or how they ought to behave (Cooper 1982; Hart 1974, 1984; Rohr 1989). Hart (1984), for example, proposed that public man- agers should be prudent, trustworthy, and considerate, and their actions should be consistent with public values and interests. Given this emphasis on the moral person, it is not surprising that so many public sector organiza- tions rely on their senior leader- ship to establish and support an ethical climate (Berman, West, and Cava 1994; Bruce 1994; West and Berman 2004). Empirical evidence also sup- ports the importance of ethics for good governance and democracy (Cowell, Downe, and Morgan 2014) because it predicts satisfaction with government services, trust in government, and the amount of citizen participation (Vigoda-Gadot 2007; Villoria, Van Ryzin, and Lavena 2013).

In the United States, recent ethical scandals involv- ing the targeting of conservative political groups for scrutiny, violations of the privacy of journalists and world leaders, and sexual harassment and assault

in the military reveal not only the importance of ethical behavior but also the diffi culty of ensuring it (Alexander and Stewart 2013; Dinan 2013; Horwitz 2013; Shane 2013). In a 2007 national survey of 744 randomly selected government employees in the United States (Ethics Resource Center 2008), 57 per- cent of government employees reported that they had witnessed a violation of ethical standards, policies, or law in their workplace during the previous 12-month period. While ethical violations can take many diff erent forms, commonly cited examples include misreporting hours worked, employment discrimina- tion, sexual harassment, and violations of privacy (Ethics Resource Center 2008; Kaptein et al. 2005). Of those who reported witnessing ethical violations, nearly one-third (30 percent) of government employ- ees in the United States did not report the violation (Ethics Resource Center 2008). Just as troubling is the opportunity and pressure for misconduct. Nearly half (48 percent) of the government employees surveyed reported experiencing situations that they felt invited misconduct, while 14 percent reported that they had been pressured to compromise ethical standards in the course of performing their jobs. Existing evidence

also suggests that the leader- ship in public organizations often fails to achieve the desired ethical standards. For example, the 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey found that nearly half (45 percent) of federal employees do not believe the leaders in their organiza-

tion maintain high standards of honesty and integrity, while well over one-third (38.5 percent) do not feel that they can disclose a suspected violation of laws or regulations without fear of reprisal (OPM 2012).

Given the importance and complexity of the topic, there have been surprisingly few empirical studies assessing the eff ects of ethical leadership in govern- ment organizations (Beeri et al. 2013; Hassan et al. 2013; Huberts, Kaptein, and Lasthuizen 2007;

Does Ethical Leadership Matter in Government? Eff ects on Organizational Commitment, Absenteeism,

and Willingness to Report Ethical Problems

Existing evidence also suggests that the leadership in public organizations often fails to achieve the desired ethical


334 Public Administration Review • May | June 2014

leaders take into account the moral implications of their choices. Th e last attribute captures the moral manager aspect of ethical leadership. Th at is, ethical leaders are not only honest, trustworthy, and principled decision makers, they also actively promote ethical behavior among their followers by clearly communicating ethical standards and expectations, providing ethical guidance, and holding followers accountable for ethical and unethical conduct (Brown and Treviño 2006; Treviño, Brown, and Hartman 2003).

Infl uence of Ethical Leadership on Employee Attitudes and Behaviors Leadership has long been considered important in discussions on managerial ethics (Barnard 1938). However, ethical leadership as a construct or distinct form of leadership has been proposed only in the last decade (Brown, Treviño, and Harrison 2005), and more needs to be learned about the eff ects on employee attitudes and behaviors that can infl uence organizational performance and integ- rity. Some recent research provides evidence that ethical leadership can infl uence the attitudes and behavior of subordinates. Managers who exhibit higher levels of ethical leadership not only decrease unethical behaviors and increase citizenship behaviors but also infl uence subordinate attitudes about such behaviors (Mayer et al. 2012; Resick et al. 2013; Walumbwa et al. 2011; Walumbwa and Schaubroeck 2009). Ethical leadership can increase follower satis- faction with the leader, the perception of leader eff ectiveness, the quality of the leader-member exchange relationship, organizational commitment, and prosocial behavior, as well as reduce deviant employee behavior (Hassan et al. 2013; Kalshoven, Den Hartog, and De Hoogh 2011; Mayer et al. 2012; Mayer et al. 2009; Resick et al. 2013; Walumbwa et al. 2011; Walumbwa and Schaubroeck 2009; Yukl et al. 2013).

Th e number of relevant studies, however, is still relatively small and conducted primarily in business organizations. While research on the consequences of ethical leadership in public organizations is lim- ited, the studies that do exist suggest that this can be a productive area of research. Miceli and Near (1984, 1985, 1988), for example, found that personal and organizational factors infl uence employee reports of unethical conduct in federal agencies. Consistent with public service motivation theory, Brewer and Selden (1998) showed that public employees with a higher regard for the public interest are more likely to report illegal or wasteful activity in their agen- cies. Moreover, several studies examined the prevalence of diff erent leadership practices and ethic codes and their eff ects on employee ethical behavior in public organizations (Berman, West, and Cava 1994; Bruce 1994; Cowell, Downe, and Morgan 2014; West and Berman 2004). More recently, public sector studies have begun to fi nd a connection between ethical leadership and integrity violations (Kaptein et. al 2007; Kolthoff , Erakovich, and Lasthuizen 2010), quality of work life (Beeri et al. 2013), and aff ective commitment (Hassan et al. 2013). In this article, we aim to contribute to research in public administration by examining how ethical leadership is related to employee willingness to report ethical problems, organiza- tional commitment, and frequency of absences from work.

Ethical leadership and willingness to report ethical problems. As noted earlier, recent national surveys suggest that many government employees who observe workplace misconduct fail to report it (Ethics Resource Center 2008; OPM 2012). When explaining their

Kolthoff , Erakovich, and Lasthuizen 2010). More research is needed to understand the potential eff ectiveness and importance of leader- ship in facilitating ethical behavior and preventing unethical con- duct in government organizations. In this article, we aim to extend the public administration literature by examining how ethical leadership can facilitate positive outcomes in government organi- zations. More specifi cally, we examine the relationships between ethical leadership and the organizational commitment of public sector employees, their absenteeism, and their willingness to report ethical problems. After a brief overview of ethical leadership theories and research fi ndings, we develop a set of testable hypotheses based on prior research and theory. Th en we describe the research meth- ods used in this article and present the fi ndings. We conclude by discussing the theoretical and practical implications of our research fi ndings and avenues for future research on ethical leadership in government organizations.

Literature Review and Hypotheses Ethical Leadership Integrity and honesty have long been considered important deter- minants of leadership eff ectiveness (Kirkpatrick and Locke 1991; Kouzes and Posner 1992; Posner and Schmidt 1992), with Barnard noting as early as 1938 that one function of the executive is to cre- ate a moral framework for the organization. Even so, organizational scholars have only recently begun to adopt a systematic approach to describe what ethical leadership means and to examine the anteced- ents and consequences of ethical leadership in organizations (Brown and Treviño 2006; Brown, Treviño, and Harrison 2005; Treviño, Brown, and Hartman 2003).

Ethical leadership has been described in many ways. Kanungo (2001) noted that ethical leaders engage in behaviors that benefi t others and, at the same time, refrain from behaviors that can cause harm to others. Khuntia and Suar (2004) suggested that ethical leaders incorporate moral principles into their values, beliefs, and actions. Brown, Treviño, and Harrison provided a more comprehen- sive defi nition conceptualizing ethical leadership as “the demonstra- tion of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships, and the promotion of such conduct through two-way communication, reinforcement and decision- making” (2005, 120).

According to these perspectives, three essential attributes or com- ponents of ethical leadership are (1) being an ethical role model to others, (2) treating people fairly, and (3) actively managing ethics in the organization (Brown and Treviño 2006; Brown, Treviño, and Harrison 2005; Treviño, Brown, and Hartman 2003). Th e fi rst two attributes capture the moral person aspect of ethical leadership. Ethical leaders demonstrate ethical values such as honesty, integ- rity, and altruism (e.g., sacrifi cing personal gains for the benefi t of others), and they conduct themselves in an ethical manner even in the midst of adversity, risks, or pressure (Brown and Treviño 2006; Brown, Treviño, and Harrison 2005; Treviño, Brown, and Hartman 2003). Ethical leaders also serve as ethical role models for other people. Th ese leaders establish themselves as credible and legitimate role models by demonstrating normatively appropriate behaviors and treating others with consideration and respect (Brown and Treviño 2006; Brown, Treviño, and Harrison 2005). While making important decisions that may aff ect the well-being of others, ethical

Does Ethical Leadership Matter in Government? Effects on Organizational Commitment, Absenteeism, and Willingness to Report Ethical Problems 335

the relationship between ethical leaders and followers is likely characterized by social rather than economic exchanges. Economic exchanges are largely impersonal, whereas social exchanges are based on mutual aff ec- tion, trust, and reciprocity (Blau 1964; Gouldner 1960). Because ethical leaders are trustworthy, care about the well-being of their followers, and are fair decision makers, they are likely to develop high-quality relationships

with their followers; this, in turn, is likely to infl uence followers to reciprocate by showing loyalty to the leader and commitment to the work group and organization that they represent. Consistent with these expectations, a recent study by Ko and Hur (2014) showed a positive correlation between manager trustworthiness and the intention of public employees to stay in their organization. A few recent studies also found a positive connection between ethical leadership and subordinate organizational commitment (Beeri et al. 2013; Hassan et al. 2013), but these studies relied on self-reported measures of organizational commitment. To further corroborate the relationship, we assessed manager perception of subordinate com- mitment as well as subordinate self-reported aff ective commitment to test the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 2: Ethical leadership increases the organizational commitment of public sector employees.

Ethical leadership and absenteeism. Absenteeism is a costly personnel problem for organizations. In addition to its direct fi nancial costs (e.g., statutory sick pay, replacement costs, and overtime costs), absenteeism can lower individual productivity and group performance (Hacket 1989; Tharenou 1993; Viswesvaran 2002). While there is evidence that absenteeism may be higher in the public sector than in private sector organizations (Dibben, James, and Cunningham 2001; Klein 1986; Vandenheuvel 1994), few studies in public administration have investigated how to reduce absenteeism in government organizations (Dalton and Perry 1981; Garcia 1987; Perry and Angle 1980; Perry and Long 1984; Vigoda- Gadot and Meisler 2010; Wright and Pandey 2011).

March and Simon (1958) distinguished two categories of absences: voluntary absences over which employees have some control (e.g., uncertifi ed sickness and vacation) and involuntary absences (e.g., certifi ed sickness and family emergencies). Unfortunately, it is very diffi cult to determine whether an absence is voluntary or involun- tary (Darr and Johns 2008). While both types of absence can be costly to the organization, organizations in the United States put most of their attention on identifying and reducing the costs associ- ated with voluntary or unnecessary absences, especially given the employment protections (e.g., the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act) that aff ord employees many sources of involuntary absenteeism.

Ethical leadership may have an infl uence on both voluntary and involuntary absences in a number of ways. Unscheduled, voluntary absences from work are often caused by illness or family emergencies, but these absences may also be caused by mistreatment at work,

failure to report misconduct, government employees often noted doubt that management would take appropriate corrective action and a fear of retaliation. Ethical leaders can create a safe organizational climate in which employees feel comfortable discussing ethical issues and reporting ethical problems without fear of retaliation. When people are afraid to voice concerns about ethical problems in their organization, ethical leadership can reduce this fear (Walumbwa and Schaubroeck 2009). When employees have a leader who is honest, trustworthy, and fair, they are more likely to think that the leader will agree with or understand their concerns and respond to them appropriately. They will feel more comfortable discussing sensitive ethical issues and will be more likely to report ethical problems. Quickly discovering and resolving ethical problems can prevent or reduce negative consequences, such as damage to the organization’s reputation, costly lawsuits, and loss of public trust (Victor and Cullen 1988).

Social learning theory suggests that individuals learn about appro- priate behavior by observing the behavior of role models (Bandura 1977, 1986), and managers can serve as legitimate models for nor- mative behavior (Mayer et al. 2012; Mayer et al. 2009). By behav- ing in an ethical manner and holding others accountable for ethical and unethical actions, managers are able to positively infl uence subordinates to avoid unethical actions and to report ethical issues and problems to management. Walumbwa and Schaubroeck (2009) found that ethical leadership promoted employee voice by enhanc- ing the perception of psychological safety, and Brown, Treviño, and Harrison (2005) found that ethical leadership was signifi cantly related to followers’ willingness to report problems. All of these fi nd- ings suggest the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 1: Ethical leadership increases the willingness of public sector employees to report ethical problems to management.

Ethical leadership and organizational commitment. In addition to increasing willingness to report unethical behavior, ethical leadership can infl uence employee attitudes in benefi cial ways. Brown, Treviño, and Harrison (2005) suggested that ethical leaders are likely to have a positive effect on a subordinate’s commitment to the organization. Organizational commitment refers to emotional attachment to, identifi cation with, and involvement in one’s organization (Meyer and Allen 1991; Porter et al. 1974), and it refl ects agreement with organizational values and goals as well as feelings of personal satisfaction derived from involvement in the organization (Meyer and Allen 1991). Organizational commitment has important implications in terms of decreasing turnover intentions and increasing job performance and organizational citizenship behavior (Cooper-Hakim and Viswesvaran 2005; Mathieu and Zajac 1990; Meyer et al. 2002).

Social exchange theory (Blau 1964; Gouldner 1960) provides insight into how ethical leadership may infl uence followers’ com- mitment to their work group and organiza- tion. Brown and Treviño (2006) noted that

Ethical leaders can create a safe organizational climate in

which employees feel comfort- able discussing ethical issues

and reporting ethical problems without fear of retaliation.

Ethical leadership may have an infl uence on both voluntary and

involuntary absences.

336 Public Administration Review • May | June 2014

of the managers in their organizations was inversely correlated with their self-reported absenteeism. In a study by Rosenblatt, Shapira- Lishchinsky, and Shirom (2010), an organizational climate empha- sizing a genuine interest in the welfare of others (both inside and outside the organization) was associated with lower absenteeism among teachers. Th ese fi ndings suggest that ethical leadership is an important factor in establishing an ethical climate in public sector organizations (Beeri et al. 2013; Bruce 1994). Consistent with these fi ndings, we test the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 3: Ethical leadership reduces the frequency of absenteeism for public sector employees.

Research Methods Sample and Procedure Th e study used data collected from personnel records and from two separate surveys conducted in a large agency in state government in the Midwestern United States. Th e agency was responsible for providing procurement, human resources, information technology, and other administrative services to other agencies, commissions, and boards in the state government as well as to local govern- ment organizations. Th e subordinate survey and the supervisor survey were conducted in the summer of 2012 as part of a long- term project undertaken by the agency for leadership training and development. Th e questionnaires for both surveys were distributed and collected electronically. Th e subordinate and supervisor data were matched using a four-digit unique identifi er. During the data collection procedure, the participants were assured repeatedly that no identifying information would be shared by the researchers with anyone inside or outside the agency. Only aggregate results at the division level were included in the fi nal report shared with the agency head and division managers.

Th e subordinate questionnaire was designed to collect data regard- ing ethical leadership, subordinate willingness to report ethical problems to management, and aff ective commitment. First, the

questionnaire was pre-tested with a small group of employees (n = 9) working in the agency’s division of human resources to obtain feedback on the questionnaire as well as to test the electronic survey distribution tool. Next, the agency head and division managers sent an e-mail to all employees to communi- cate the purpose of the study and to explain that participation was voluntary and that all responses would remain confi dential. Th en, the research team contacted all 820 employees

(except the agency head) by sending an e-mail that repeated the explanation of the study and explained that the electronic survey administration tool allowed participants to complete the survey at a time convenient to them during their normal work hours. Th e sur- vey remained open for three weeks, during which time up to three e-mail reminders were sent to boost the response rate. Altogether, 477 usable responses were returned for an overall response rate of 59 percent.

Data regarding subordinate commitment were collected through a separate survey of 176 supervisors. Each supervisor rated the commit- ment of direct reports, who were the subordinates surveyed earlier.

low morale, stress, and a sense of entitlement (CCH 2006; Lach 1999)


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