Assignment: Differentiating Perceptions Of Supervisor

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Measuring and Differentiating Perceptions of Supervisor and Top Leader Ethics

Janet L. Kottke • Kathie L. Pelletier

Received: 4 October 2011 / Accepted: 26 March 2012 / Published online: 7 April 2012

� Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Abstract We report the results of two studies that eval-

uated the perceptions of supervisor and top leader ethics. In

our first study, we re-analyzed data from Pelletier and

Bligh (J Bus Ethics 67:359–374, 2006) and found that the

Perceptions of Ethical Leadership Scale from that study

could be used to differentiate perceptions of supervisor and

top leader ethics. In a second study with a different sample,

we examined the relationships between (1) individual

employees’ perceptions of top managers’ and immediate

supervisors’ ethical tendencies, and (2) organizational cli-

mate, confidence in top leadership direction, commitment,

and citizenship behavior. Results indicated that employee

perceptions of top managers’ and supervisors’ ethics were

significantly related to climate, top leadership direction,

organizational commitment and the OCB dimension, civic

virtue.

Keywords Immediate supervisor ethics � Top leader ethics � Organizational culture � Ethics measurement

The corporate scandals of Enron, Tyco, Bank of America,

WorldCom, and Merck during the past decade have led to

an outpouring of popular press articles elaborating on the

lack of regulatory oversight, complex and deceptive

accounting schemes, and greed of these organizations’ top

leaders (McLean and Elkind 2004; Patsuris 2002; Revell

and Burke 2003; Toffler and Reingold 2003). Under-

standing these scandals requires scrutinizing organizational

leaders, their ethical sensibilities and the climates they

fostered; in fact, the predominant focus of academic liter-

ature has been on top leaders’ characters, behaviors, and

formative experiences (e.g., Brown and Treviño 2006).

Without a doubt, top leaders are important for setting the

moral tone for an organization (cf., Sims and Brinkmann

2002; Viswesvaran et al. 1998; Zahra et al. 2007). As

media reports indicate (e.g., Revell and Burke 2003),

unethical top leaders can have tremendous impact on the

survival of a company, but small, seemingly insignificant

acts of dishonesty performed by immediate supervisors

may convey an even more insidious message to the orga-

nization’s employees. Supervisors who engage in dirty

practices confirm local norms encouraging unethical

behavior among immediate reports and most likely for

other supervisors of the same rank. Yet, little research has

assessed the possibility of differing effects of ethical

behavior displayed at top levels of an organization versus

that displayed by an immediate supervisor (Davis and

Rothstein 2006; Mize et al. 2000; Wiley 1998). We surmise

that ethical models at the lower ranks could be as important

as those of the top leadership. Indeed, the effects of

immediate supervisors on employees may very well be

more pronounced than top leadership behavior, as imme-

diate supervisors typically control an employee’s perfor-

mance evaluations, promotions, and pay. If that direct

supervisor is seen as ethical, we would anticipate favorable

employee attitudes toward that supervisor (Dirks and Ferrin

2002) and a greater likelihood that the supervisor could

influence the direct report’s ethical behavior.

J. L. Kottke (&) Department of Psychology, California State University, San

Bernardino, 5500 University Parkway, San Bernardino, CA

92407, USA

e-mail: jkottke@csusb.edu

K. L. Pelletier

Department of Management, California State University, San

Bernardino, 5500 University Parkway, San Bernardino, CA

92407, USA

e-mail: jkpelleti@csusb.edu

123

J Bus Ethics (2013) 113:415–428

DOI 10.1007/s10551-012-1312-8

Why Differentiate Top Leadership from Immediate

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