Eric Luis Uhlmann
Professor of Organisational Behaviour
Behavioral Ethics; Benign Violation Theory; Humor; Morality
Previous research has identified many positive outcomes resulting from a deeply held moral identity, while overlooking potential negative social consequences for the moral individual. Drawing from Benign Violation Theory, the authors explore the tension between moral identity and humor, and the downstream workplace consequence of such tension.Consistent with the authors' hypotheses, compared with participants in the control condition, participants whose moral identities were situationally activated (Study 1a) or chronically accessible (Study 1b) were less likely to appreciate humor and generate jokes others found funny (Study 2), especially humor that involved benign moral violations.The authors also found that participants with a strong moral identity do not generally compensate for their lack of humor by telling more jokes that do not involve moral violations (Study 3). Additional field studies demonstrated that employees (Study 4) and leaders (Study 5) with strong moral identities and who display ethical leadership are perceived as less humorous by their coworkers and subordinates, and to the extent that this is the case are less liked in the workplace.Study 5 further demonstrated two competing mediating pathways — leaders with strong moral identities are perceived as less humorous but also as more trustworthy, with differentiated effects on interpersonal liking.Although having moral employees and leaders can come with many benefits, the authors' research shows that there can be offsetting costs associated with an internalized moral identity: reduced humor and subsequent likability in the workplace.