Perceived leader integrity and
ethical intentions of
Southwest Missouri State University, Springﬁeld, Missouri, USA
Keywords Leaders, Moral hazards, Social attitudes, Ethics
Abstract This study examined the relationship between perceived leader integrity, belief in
universal moral rules, and employees’ ethical intentions while controlling for socially desirable
response tendencies. The results demonstrated that both higher perceived leader integrity and
stronger beliefs in universal moral rules were associated with lower intentions to commit unethical
acts. More importantly, the results revealed an interaction between perceived leader integrity and
belief in universal moral rules. Individuals with a strong belief in universal moral rules exhibited
low intentions of committing unethical acts, regardless of the perceived integrity of their leaders.
For individuals who do not adhere to a belief in universal moral rules, intention to commit
unethical acts decreased as the perceived integrity of the leaders increased.
Numerous studies over the past several decades have documented evidence of
unethical behavior in many organizations (McDonald and Nijhof, 1999).
Perhaps owing to news reports that continue to uncover cases of unethical
behavior such as falsifying reports, harassment of co-workers, and deceptive
advertising, the study of unethical behavior in organizations remains an area of
high interest among practitioners and academic researchers (Loe et al., 2000).
Why unethical activity is common in many organizations but not in others has
been a highly debated topic among researchers for a number of years (Sims and
Brinkmann, 2002). Generally, most theories and empirical research have
attributed unethical behavior to either situational variables associated with the
organization, characteristics of the individuals, or the interaction between these
two factors (Ford and Richardson, 1994; Loe et al., 2000; Trevin
One of the situational factors assumed to account for much of the differences
in the observed unethical behavior among various organizations is the integrity
or ethical attitudes of the organization’s leaders (Sims and Brinkmann, 2002).
While some theorists have questioned how much leaders inﬂuence the ethical
attitudes of subordinates (Minkes et al., 1999), most theorists have proposed
that the authority and power bestowed on leaders in organizations provide
them with the capability of setting the tone and ethical atmosphere of the
o, 1986). These theorists assert that leaders have the
ability to establish and communicate organizational values as well as impose
rewards and sanctions to ensure compliance with organizational policies
(Paine, 1997; Sims, 2000; Sims and Brinkmann, 2002).
The Emerald Research Register for this journal is available at The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received December 2002
Revised March 2003
Accepted July 2003
The Leadership & Organization
Vol. 25 No. 1, 2004
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited