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Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49, 5 (2013) 783-796
Evaluations of deviant behavior in organizations are often biased by personal characteristics of deviants. In four studies, we investigate the conditions under which sanctioners are more lenient towards deviants who hold leadership positions as compared to individuals at lower levels of organizational hierarchies. Results supported the hypothesized interactive effect of deviance severity—which is defined by the magnitude of harm that deviant behavior inflicts on others—and deviant leadership status on recommended (Studies 1 and 2) and actual punishments (Studies 3 and 4). Leadership status appeared to protect its holders in the case of low-severity deviances, but was a liability in the case of high-severity misbehavior. Furthermore, mediation studies with measured (Study 3) and manipulated (Study 4) proposed mediators supported our hypothesis that perceived entitlement mediates the effect of deviant leadership status on punishment for low-severity deviances. For deviances of high severity, we hypothesized and found that the effect of deviant leadership status is mediated by perceived betrayal of leader-specific responsibilities. These results suggest that deviance severity and perceived rights and responsibilities associated with leadership are important determinants of punitive actions that people are willing to impose on deviant leaders.