Sanctions and power

The employment of sanctioning systems has the potential to significantly frame the working setting of employees (i.e., punishment of unethical behaviour; Mulder et al., 2006). In the literature, generally two reasons are identified why unethical behaviour should be punished (Carlsmith, 2006). A first reason concerns the idea of retribution, in which punishment is seen as an end in itself. The second reason concerns the idea of utility, in which punishment is used to limit future transgressions. The idea is that the costs of the punishment should negatively impact how attractive a rational transgressor evaluates the act of future unethical behaviour. The notion of utility indeed seems to be an important heuristic used by lay people. For example, research by Trevino and Ball (1992) showed that observers consider punishment of individuals acting unethical more fair when the punishment is more severe. Other research also shows that depending on one’s own position in the punishment process (i.e. being the one who punishes or is being punished) utility may be determined more by process or outcome concerns. Punishment does not always represent a formal organizational procedure but can also be delivered in informal ways. For example, those acting unethical can also become ostracized by their peers as such denying them belongingness to the group or organization.

Being able to sanction others also involves the issue of power. Basically, power reflects how dependent one party is on the other party when allocating valued resources (cf. Emerson, 1962; Van Dijke & Poppe, 2004, 2006). Such a conception of social power as being grounded in dependence facilitates the fear that power holders my abuse their power (Kipnis, 1972). However, this may not always be the case. Currently, there are tow different perspectives in the literature. The first perspective argues that power holders may be motivated to display socially responsible behaviour by being less self-serving and strategic than assumed. The second perspective, however, advocates the idea that high-power individuals engage in less perspective-taking and thus do not assess the concerns and experiences of other people, increasing the likelihood of socially inappropriate behaviour.