Anxiety provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic is promoting unethical behaviour in the workplace, according to new University of Guelph research.

Dr. Laurie Barclay, professor and Lang Chair in Leadership in the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics, noted that the recent increase in anxiety as a result of the pandemic has important implications for the workplace.

“We found that anxiety about the pandemic focused people’s attention towards being self-interested,” said Barclay. “This self-interest then prompted unethical behaviour at work.”

Previous research has shown that environmental factors can lead to unethical behaviour. For example, air pollution has been associated with an increase in unethical behaviour like crime.

This new research, published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, was intended to look at COVID-19 as a similar environmental factor that can induce anxiety.

As anxiety enters the equation, a person’s attention shifts to advancing their own self-interest, Barclay said.

What is unethical behaviour in the workplace?

In the workplace, unethical behaviour can involve falsifying customer records, providing false information to management, or fudging the number of hours worked or tasks completed, she explained.

Dr. Laurie Barclay in black, wearing glasses against red background.
Dr. Laurie Barclay

Barclay and her co-author, Dr. Annika Hillebrandt, conducted two studies in 2020-21 with more than 500 full-time employees in Canada and the U.S.

For the first study, participants were asked to self-report their perceptions of the pandemic, anxiety and unethical behaviours. In the second study, the researchers tested whether those perceptions related to the degree to which COVID-19 was a threat that impacted their anxiety and whether that resulted in unethical behaviour or cheating.

“These little cheating behaviours can really add up in terms of productivity costs, leading to financial losses and even reputational damage for companies,” Barclay said.

This impact on a company’s bottom line comes at a time when many organizations are struggling to maintain viability due to the pandemic, she added.

Prosocial messages can help, but beware of toxic positivity

This research also looked at solutions to lessen unethical behaviour. The team showed that pro-social messages highlighting the meaningful and positive impact of employees’ work on others mitigated the unethical behaviour.

Similarly, said Barclay, pro-social messages from public health authorities (wash your hands, wear a mask) helped put anxieties over the virus into context by diverting an individual’s attention to another’s interest (helping to flatten the curve, keeping others from getting sick).

If an organization helped its employees see the benefits of their work for other people, that pro-social message decreased the likelihood that employees would behave unethically, Barclay said. Providing this messaging is a simple yet effective strategy that organizations can use to curtail unethical workplace cheating behaviour, she suggested.

“However, we definitely want to avoid the toxic positivity. Instead of asking employees to do more, it’s recognizing the value that they’re adding with what they’re already doing.”

This research was partly funded by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


Dr. Laurie Barclay