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Ensuring ethics matter

Marie Mitchell

Professor Marie Mitchell is shining light on organizational factors that can lead to destructive, exclusionary and unethical behaviors in the workplace, such as unethical leadership, workplace cheating, and destructive and exclusionary work behaviors.

And she is helping our understanding of how to achieve just the opposite: effective, inclusive and ethical behavior at work.

Mitchell’s examination of these social and ethical issues has resulted in an extensive body of research that informs what she teaches and provides actionable insights for business leaders.

A professor of organizational behavior, she joined UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School in 2022 after serving on the University of Georgia Terry College of Business faculty for nearly 14 years.

When thinking about leaving the University of Georgia, she prioritized finding a university that appreciated diversity of thought and offered an inclusive community. “If I was entertaining the thought of leaving Georgia, then I really wanted to find a department of individuals who are fantastic, who I know, and who are good people,” says Mitchell. “I talked to other schools, but UNC Kenan-Flagler was an absolute magical fit.”

Indeed, the culture drew in Mitchell.

“At this stage in my career, what’s critically important to me is building community around inclusion and feeling the importance of my research, which is about behavioral ethics with a focus on those who engage in exclusionary, dysfunctional and unethical behaviors,” says Mitchell. “I really wanted to find individuals who sang that same language and embody and value the importance of being functional and ethical and inclusive.”

Research informs her teaching

At UNC Kenan-Flagler, Mitchell teaches Ethical and Inclusive Leadership and Women in Leadership courses to MBAs and Affect and Emotion to PhD students. Over the course of her career, she has taught a variety of topics related to organizational behavior and leadership to undergraduates, MBA and PhD students.

Marie Mitchell“I have a lot of fun with it. My approach is to put them through a case discussion or activity, and don’t tell them my opinion. I don’t tell them the theory,” she says. “I get them to go all out on whatever they’re saying, and then I introduce the theory and problems associated with it.”

Although people routinely question whether ethics can be taught in a classroom, Mitchell advocates its importance because students inevitably face moral dilemmas during their careers.

“Graduates have reported that they face pressure to bend their ethics on a daily basis,” she says. “The pressures to perform are incredibly high. There are so many unfortunate examples of business failings, such as Wells Fargo and Boeing, where individuals justified bad deeds in favor of the bottom line.”

Mitchell’s research informs her teaching and her teaching informs her research. She studies behavioral ethics in the workplace, inclusion and exclusion dynamics at work, and destructive and conflictive work behavior and relationships.

First-hand knowledge also informs her work. Prior to entering higher education, Mitchell worked in human resource management and consulted with companies from diverse industries, such as law, information technology and manufacturing.

Mitchell, who earned her PhD at University of Central Florida, wrote her doctoral dissertation on abusive supervision. It became the subject that made a strong mark in her field, building understanding of why employees react with dysfunctional behaviors, such as retaliation and reduced performance; what happens when employees defend themselves; and how employees respond when they observe leaders’ abusive behaviors.

She continues to show how and why leaders promote dysfunctional behaviors among employees and investigates other forms of those behaviors. For instance, she examined how leaders’ leniency toward an employee who engaged in misconduct can be a double-edged sword for leaders, fueling them with pride and prompting guilt that can yield very distinct reactions by leaders.

Mitchell’s recent study found that a leaders’ focus on the bottom-line can disrupt employees’ daily work experiences, causing them to shift away from their normal routines, which raises employees’ anxiety and exhaustion that result in unethical behavior to address the leader’s demands. Importantly, this work also found that employees were less likely to turn to unethical acts to raise bottom-line contributions if their leaders were perceived to maintain a continuous commitment to ethics in their leadership style.

Her review article on unethical leadership summarizes her work as well as others’ scholarship on the implications of unethical leadership to organizations. It also includes practical implications for managers to address and minimize unethical leadership within their organizations.

Up next is exploring what makes employees respond to unethical leaders in a functional way, growing from it in an ethical manner instead of imitating their leaders’ unethical behaviors.

Proud mom

Mitchell and her husband are getting used to being empty nesters. Their two adult children are changing the world. Their daughter earned a master’s degree from Berkeley in civic and environmental engineering with a specialty in water and is now attending Columbia to earn a PhD in environmental engineering at Columbia. Their son earned an undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Georgia and is a behavioral specialist working with autistic children.

“Honestly, both kids make me so proud,” she says. “They really do. And if the zombie apocalypse happens, I will have fresh water and my son will keep me mentally stable. So, what more can you ask for?”