One of Sir Richard Branson’s quotes is ‘Train your employees well enough that they could leave. Then treat them well enough that they want to stay.  Why is it that employees want to leave an organisation? If you know why they leave then you can recognise what will make your employees follow you and stay. If you practice unethical leadership, the reason they leave is usually you!

Unethical leadership

I have recently spoken to a number of people looking to leave their job.  There is a consistent theme.  Poor and/or unethical leadership. This really shouldn’t surprise me, as the Chartered Management Institute published a research document, ‘Managers and the Moral Maze’.  This showed that 80% of workers do not think their managers set a good example. 60% claim to have witnessed colleagues behaving unethically. The vast majority of those being unethical were managers. The world is crying out for authentic leadership, so understanding about unethical leadership can help.

Furthermore, unethical leadership has also been found to negatively influence important work attitudes, e.g. lower job satisfaction. Thus, unethical leadership is considered detrimental to employees’ personal growth satisfaction and intentions to stay (Ruiz-Palomino et al., 2021)

Examples of unethical leadership

1. The exploitation of employees

Leaders who use their power to exploit employees by underpaying them, withholding benefits, or subjecting them to unfair treatment.

2. Discrimination

Leaders who engage in discriminatory practices based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. This can include biased hiring, promotion, and firing practices.

3. Corruption

Leaders who use their power for personal gains, such as embezzlement of company funds or accepting bribes.

4. Lack of transparency

Leaders who withhold information from employees or stakeholders, or who deliberately misrepresent facts.

5. Toxic culture

Leaders who foster a culture of fear, intimidation, or harassment in the workplace, lead to a high turnover rate, low morale, and poor performance.

6. Poor decision-making

Leaders who make decisions that are not in the best interest of the organization or its stakeholders, leading to negative outcomes such as financial loss, reputation damage, or harm to the environment or society.

7. Micromanagement

Leaders who micromanage employees, fail to delegate tasks or provide autonomy, leading to employee burnout and reduced productivity.

Treat others as you would like to be treated

It is disconcerting to see examples of unethical leadership.  There is no way employees follow when such practices are in evidence.   One of my mother’s favourite sayings springs to mind here. ‘Treat others as you would like to be treated.’ I often wonder why some senior leaders cannot see why their unethical leadership behaviour has an adverse effect on both their organisation and their employees.   Most good leaders know that employees will not believe what they tell them.  They will believe in what they do and how they behave.

Leadership as a profession

Leadership should be recognised as a profession in its own right. There are plenty of leaders, many in senior positions, whose reputations and positions have been built on quantitative performance results. These are usually financial.  These results do not give consideration to the ‘collateral damage’ they leave in their wake. At some point, their behaviour exposes their true nature and they seem to implode.  While the organisation they work for should have relevant codes of conduct in place, then the premise that the end justifies the means often overrides any commitments to any code for people who have the power in the organisation.  If leadership were a profession then an ethical code would exist to call leaders to account.

Accountability for unethical leadership

By becoming ‘professional’ leaders would have to agree on a code of ethics that also carries accountability.  It is the lack of accountability that nurtures unethical leadership. This should start with the leaders of this country; politicians. Whether it is the expenses scandal: Publicly dismissing a person in a senior role in the public sector, or wasting millions of pounds on a failed initiative; politicians appear to have no accountability. This poor model contrasts sharply with a positive model of leadership.  A poor model results in poor modelling by leaders throughout the organisation.  This then leads to a lack of accountability.

Look in the mirror

And yet, as a senior leader, you do have accountability. You have accountability to the staff who are following your lead; who see you as their role model.

Why should employees follow you? If you are concerned about the culture in your organisation and/or the attitude of your staff, I’ll give you a free tip – look in the mirror. The chances are that you will be looking at a significant factor in your organisation’s culture and you will, most definitely, be looking at the person who influences their attitude. Another free tip – ‘train your staff well enough that they could leave and then treat them well enough that they want to stay’ starts with ethical leadership!

  • About the Author
  • Latest Posts

I am an accredited Business and Leadership Coach and work with organisations from all 3 sectors both nationally and internationally.

With over 20 years experience in senior and executive leadership roles I have had the privilege of learning from some dreadful leaders – and the occasional really good one too!

My mission is to work with clients who want to fall in to the latter category and who can vicariously learn from the former….