The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (detail), Francisco Goya (Courtesy: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri)
Ideas for Leaders #715

Why Managers Forgive Ethical Lapses of Tired Employees

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Key Concept

Managers tend to excuse and forgive ethical lapses by employees who are fatigued or depleted, a new study shows — although if the employees brought the fatigue on themselves (such as from watching a late night sporting event rather than working late), managers are less forgiving.

Idea Summary

It’s not surprising to see people in the workplace tired and depleted. The cognitive consequences of such fatigue — the negative impact on people’s ability to think clearly and make sound decisions — are well documented. This state of ‘ego depletion’, to use the psychologists’ term, is also known to impact ethical decisions. Psychologists argue that fatigue depletes self-control resources, which leads to ethical lapses.

A new empirical study shows that ego depletion not only impacts the behaviour of employees, but will also impact how leaders and managers react to the behaviour. Specifically, the study, conducted by a team of academics from China, Singapore and the U.S., indicates that managers are more likely to give employees who act unethically a ‘pass’ if the managers believe the employees are tired or otherwise depleted.

The study was based on laboratory experiments in which participants watched videos depicting either a depleted or non-depleted employee engaged in an unethical act (over charging on lunch expenses for personal gain). Participants then answered a series of questions related to their attitudes about the infraction and the appropriate punishment.

Specifically, the study showed that participants had a reduced perception of intentionality when watching a depleted employee behaving unethically — in other words, participants believed the tired employee did not intend to be unethical, but was, in essence, too tired to know the difference or to have the energy to resist the temptation. Participants watching videos with fully energized employees, on the other hand, believed the employees intended to cheat the company, 

Because of this perceived lack of intentionality on the part of the depleted employee, participants judged the unethical infraction by this employee more leniently, and called for little or no punishment. In contrast, participants watching the video with non-depleted employee cheating the company judged the employee more harshly and called for greater punishment.

The study did reveal one important factor that can change how leniently depleted unethical employees might be judged and punished: whether the reason for the depletion (the ‘sources’ of the depletion, in psychological terms) was external or internal. In other words, when an employee was shown staying up late because of external factors, such as a heavy workload or a sick child, the subsequent ethical lapse was forgiven by participants. However, if the video showed an employee staying up late for an internal reason — a reason within his control, specifically watching a late night sports event — there was less of a tendency by participants to assume that the ethical lapse was unintentional and therefore did not merit a harsh punishment.

Business Application

While this study proves the implications of psychology theories on ego depletion and attribution theory (related to the ‘why’ behind people’s actions), an important lesson for managers is the danger of giving in to the psychological tendencies described here — that is, to forgive ethical lapses because of a certain empathy for depleted individuals. Unfortunately, such forgiveness can be a signal to the employee — and to other employees that might witness the slack to the depleted employee — that ethical lapses are acceptable in the organization. Instead, leaders should adopt a policy toward ethical lapses that remains in place regardless of the factors such as depletion or the source of the depletion.

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Idea conceived

  • September 2017

Idea posted

  • September 2018

DOI number



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