Fulfilling Moral Duty or Prioritizing Moral Image? The Moral Self-Regulatory Consequences of Ethical Voice

Management Illustrations


Lei Huang, Auburn University
Joel B. Carnevale, Syracuse University
Jeremy Mackey, Auburn University
Ted Paterson, Oregon State University
Xiaolu Li, Nanjing University
Dongtao Yang, Nanjing University


Journal of Applied Psychology, 2024



This study examines how ethical voicers (those who speak out against unethical practices at work) manage the "aftershocks" of their voice and bear both its interpersonal and intrapersonal consequences.


Research Questions:

How do those who speak out against unethical practices at work manage the aftershocks of such behavior? Specifically, what intrapersonal (i.e., self-focused) and interpersonal (i.e., other-focused) moral self-regulatory processes do they experience and how does it affect their subsequent behavior? Are their gendered differences in how men and women manage these consequences?


What we Know:

Voicing one's opinions, particularly when it comes to sensitive topics such as morality, often comes with dealing with the aftermath of such behavior, both personally and socially. For example, ethical voice often leads to increased scrutiny and personal risks.  A recent review of relevant literature stressed the importance of understanding the psychological process ethical voicers go through, such as how they stay committed despite potential challenges. Thus, adopting a perspective centered on the consequences of ethical voice for the voicer him/herself can facilitate scholarly discussions that acknowledge and tackle the complex and personal aspects of ethical voice.

Novel Findings:

Our study is among the first to examine the aftershocks of ethical voice from the perspective of the voicer. Using both a time-lagged field survey study and a weekly experience sampling study, we found that those who speak up about ethical issues in the work environment subsequently strive to maintain a positive moral self, but do so in varied ways. Some feel a heightened sense of moral obligation to act ethically (even in private), while others feel pressured to merely appear moral in their workplace. Interestingly, our research uncovered gender differences in the consequences of ethical voice, with women who engage in ethical voice feeling a greater need to manage their moral image through largely symbolic gestures.

Full Citation:

Huang, L., Carnevale, J. B, Huang, Mackey, J., Paterson, T., Li, X., & Yang, D. Fulfilling Moral Duty or Prioritizing Moral Image? The Moral Self-Regulatory Consequences of Ethical Voice. Journal of Applied Psychology.



Previous research on the consequences of ethical voice has largely focused on the performance or social relational consequences of ethical voice on multiple organizational stakeholders. The present research provides an important extension to the ethical voice literature by investigating the distinct intrapersonal and interpersonal moral self-regulatory processes that shape ethical voicers’ own psychological experiences and their subsequent purposeful efforts to maintain a positive sense of moral self. On one hand, we argue that ethical voice heightens voicers’ sense of responsibility over ethical matters at work (i.e., moral ownership), which motivates them to refrain from violating moral norms (i.e., disengaging from unethical behaviors). On the other hand, we argue that ethical voice generates psychological pressure for voicers as they become anxious about preserving their moral social image (i.e., moral reputation maintenance concerns), which motivates them to signal their moral character to others through symbolic acts (i.e., engaging in moral symbolization behaviors). Further, we expect gender differences in the moral consequences of ethical voice. Across two studies that varied in temporal focus (a multi-source, time-lagged field study and a within-person weekly experience sampling study), we found support for most of our predictions. The results suggest that while potentially psychologically uplifting (for both men and women), ethical voice also generates psychological pressure for the voicer to preserve their favorable moral social image and thus motivates them (more so in case of women voicers at the between-person level) to explicitly symbolize their moral character in the workplace.

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