When you hear of corporate scandals, you might assume that the perpetrators of the crime were acting out of self-interest—that they cooked the books or covered up information to get rich or move up the corporate ladder. But what if there was another motivation that has nothing to do with personal gain?

A recent study from Elizabeth Umphress, associate professor of management and Mays research fellow, looks at motivations for unethical behavior that benefits the corporation (called “unethical pro-organizational behavior,” or UPB) and how it may be tied to the degree of organizational identification the individual feels.

The researchers define UPB as activity that is not specified by formal job descriptions; is either illegal or morally unacceptable to the larger community; and includes acts of commission (e.g. cooking numbers to boost analyst projections and stock values) and omission (e.g., withholding information about the hazards of a pharmaceutical product).

In three studies Umphress and colleagues conducted, the results were consistent: there was not a direct relationship between organizational identification and UPB. However, there was a relationship between the two if a third element, positive reciprocity, was involved.

Findings indicate that if an individual feels a need to reciprocate when something has been done for them, and also strongly identifies with the organization, then they are more likely to commit UPB. Employees who strongly identify with their organization feel obligated to protect and maintain their membership in the organization.

They also find that people can be primed to commit UPBs—when they showed a test group a video that enhanced their feeling of organizational identification, they were more likely to agree to UPBs (if they scored highly on measures of positive reciprocity) than those who had seen an unrelated video.

Both organizational identification and positive reciprocity are good traits for an employee to possess, says Umphress. They can make an employee more diligent, productive and loyal. Managers need to be aware, however, that they can interact in this negative way. Umphress stressed that hiring decisions need not be made on this criteria, but that managers should be aware of the degree of these traits in their employees and understand that in the right circumstance “the employee might feel compelled or feel that it’s their duty to do something unethical…to help protect the organization.”

In previous literature, researchers have focused predominately not on unethical behavior that boosted the organization, but rather behavior that harms it, such as stealing or sabotage. This study is one of the first to examine this unique relationship.

Umphress’s article, “Unethical behavior in the name of the company: the moderating effect of organizational identification and positive reciprocity beliefs on unethical pro-organizational behavior,” written with coauthors Marie Mitchell and John Bingham, appeared in Journal of Applied Psychology in 2010.