Women act more ethically than men when representing themselves—but not when representing others

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By Maryam Kouchaki

Research tells us a lot about why people behave unethically. Many studies, however, look only at the unethical actions people take on behalf of themselves. What about when we act on behalf of others?

We conducted four studies to examine whether people were more likely to lie when negotiating on behalf of others, rather than for themselves. We recruited 1,337 participants to engage in negotiations, and found that gender played a role in how we negotiate for ourselves and others. Men were more likely than women to lie when they were negotiating for themselves, but not when negotiating for others. But the reverse was true for women.

When we asked why participants made the decisions they did, we saw that women were more likely to report feeling guilty about letting down those they were advocating for. They were more willing to engage in questionable behavior because they anticipated feeling more guilt, and worried about disappointing others.

Even though our studies focused on women, other research has yielded similar general findings that people tend to act unethically when representing others, if they believe those they’re promoting are OK with it, or prefer it.

So how can we combat the tendency to behave unethically when acting on someone else’s behalf? Our research suggests a few approaches:

  • Aim for intentionality. At the individual level, it’s important to be aware of your motivations when advocating for others.
  • Ask for clarification. There can be significant ambiguity in real-world advocacy situations, and that can lead to erroneous assumptions about someone’s ethics and expectations, which in turn may lead to unethical behavior on their behalf.
  • State your expectations.When you’re representing someone, you should also be upfront about where you are and aren’t willing to go.

While the tendency to act unethically on behalf of others exists, the good news is that you can act to prevent such outcomes.

Maryam Kouchaki is an assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.​