Employee Loyalty as Adherence to Shared Moral Values *

By Coughlan, Richard | Journal of Managerial Issues, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Employee Loyalty as Adherence to Shared Moral Values *


Coughlan, Richard, Journal of Managerial Issues


"The attitude connoted by the word loyalty is not sufficiently understood."

--Allport (1933: 164)

Although seventy years have passed since Allport's Institutional Behavior was published, it seems the concept of loyalty is still not sufficiently understood by organizational scholars. A review of recent research from the fields of management (Boroff and Lewin, 1997; Dooley and Fryxell, 1999; Niehoff et al., 2001; Reichheld, 1996; Rusbult et al., 1988; Stroh and Reilly, 1997; Sweetman, 2001), psychology (Chen et al., 2002; Olson-Buchanan and Boswell, 2002; Pina e Cunha, 2002), and business ethics (Joseph, 2000; Mele, 2001; Schrag, 2001) yields a variety of definitions and measures for loyalty, many of which cannot be distinguished from descriptions of commitment. In fact, close scrutiny indicates that some authors have begun to use loyalty and commitment synonymously (Atwater et al., 2000; Bhappu, 2000; Chen et al., 2002; Werhane, 1999a), creating unnecessary confusion about these two distinct concepts.

Recent research exploring the role that co-workers play in shaping the ethical or unethical actions of an individual employee (Brief et al., 2001; Jackall, 1988; Moberg, 1997) has heightened the need for a more precise conceptualization of loyalty. This research suggests that by better understanding the nature of co-workers' relationships with one another and the values that are central to those relationships, we ought to gain additional insight into the factors that shape ethical and unethical behavior at work. In our view, an analysis of the concept of loyalty, especially as it pertains to members of a particular work group, should be a central part of such an investigation.

The aim of the present article is to offer a clear and useful conceptualization of loyalty, based on previous work in management and philosophy. The analysis will focus on loyalty's moral basis, which helps to distinguish it from the concept of organizational commitment (1) and provides insight about employees' ethical and unethical choices. As explained below, exploring important distinctions between loyalty and commitment has several potential benefits for scholars and practitioners, especially as it relates to our understanding of employees' decision-making processes. Throughout the article, particular emphasis will be paid to the connections between employee loyalty and ethical behavior in organizations.

In the first section that follows, previous conceptualizations of loyalty will be presented and linked to recent research on unethical actions by organizational actors. Then, the moral basis of loyalty will be established through a review of relevant work from philosophy and management. In the third and fourth sections, a new conceptualization of loyalty will be offered and the distinctions between loyalty and commitment will be discussed. Finally, a proposed measure of loyalty will be outlined and the results of a preliminary test of the measure will be discussed.

PREVIOUS CONCEPTUALIZATIONS OF LOYALTY

Over the last thirty years, a variety of definitions for loyalty have appeared in the organizational literature. Some descriptions can be traced to earlier work on the relationship between firms and their employees (Lawrence, 1958; Whyte, 1956), which emphasized the devotion of workers to their organizations as reflected in their compliance with instructions from supervisors. Other definitions have emerged more recently from research on organizational commitment (Meyer and Allen, 1991; Mowday et al., 1982; O'Reilly and Chatman, 1986) and related variables (Bhappu, 2000; Werhane, 1999a), in which loyalty has sometimes been used as a synonym for one or more forms of commitment.

Today, definitions of loyalty range from specific to broad, and capture attitudes and behaviors involving a variety of foci (Butler and Cantrell, 1984; Fletcher, 1993). As the set of definitions continues to expand, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine exactly what is meant by "loyalty" and how it should be measured. …

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