Punishing High-status Deviants: The Role of Transgression Severity and Betrayal
INSEAD Working Paper 2011/12/DS
Evaluations of workplace deviant behaviour are often biased by the personal characteristics of both deviants and sanctioners. In this paper we focus on the characteristics of deviants and investigate the conditions under which sanctioners are more lenient towards deviants of high social status than low-status wrongdoers. We experimentally test the hypothesis that the severity of misbehaviour determines the strength of punishment recommended for high as compared to low-status wrongdoers (Studies 1 and 2). Results supported the hypothesized interactive effect of severity and deviant status on recommended punishments. For work-related transgressions of low severity, high status ‘shields’ the deviant from harsh evaluations and sanctions. However, for transgressions of high severity, this effect reverses and social status becomes a liability. Sanctions are in fact the strongest for high-status perpetrators committing serious work-related transgressions. The liability effect of status in such cases is mediated by the perceived betrayal of the implicit social exchange between the organization and the status-holder (Study 3). The perceived betrayal reaches its highest level for high-status actors who engage in serious workplace misbehaviour, thereby increasing the sanctioner’s disapproval and recommended punishment.