Early Birds vs. Night Owls: Which is More Ethical?

77741160 -- worker and clockDespite what you may have heard, the likelihood that an employee will make an ethical decision in the morning more than the evening has as much to do with his or her “chronotype” as it does the actual time of day.

In a forthcoming article in the journal Psychological Science titled, “The morality of larks and owls: Unethical behavior depends on chronotype as well as time of day” (downloadable), co-authors Brian Gunia of Johns Hopkins University, Christopher Barnes of the University of Washington and Sunita Sah of Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business quash the existing theory that individuals are more likely to be unethical as the day wears on due to a loss of energy and effort to exert self-control and behave ethically.

Instead, they say, their research proves ethical behavior has more to do with the fit between an individual’s chronotype, or best/preferred time of day, and the actual time of day. The study shows morning people working in a night shift were more likely to be unethical than morning people in a morning shift, and night people in the morning were more likely to be unethical than night people at night. This suggests people may be more likely to act unethically during the “mismatched” time of day.

“Ethics is not a stable trait in people,” says Sah. “Instead, people exhibit dynamic patterns of unethical behavior across the day based on their circadian [cyclical fluctuations in sleep propensity] rhythms. By understanding their chronotypes, people can help predict when ‘the better angels of their nature’ will appear.”

The study, according to this release, challenges the existing “morning morality effect” that claims ethical decisions are mentally taxing and normal daytime activities deplete our limited cognitive resources as the day goes on.

In addition, the researchers found sleep “can have a significant impact on ethical decisions,” Sah says.

“Our research suggests that early-rising owls or late-working larks will be more likely to make seemingly small, unethical decisions that could have larger consequences.”

So what are managers and HR professionals supposed to do with this information? How can they mitigate this risk? Sah suggests learning the chronotypes of employees and creating work structures, schedules and hours that match individuals.

Requiring morning folks to make challenging, ethical decisions at night or vice versa could “run the risk of encouraging unethical behavior,” the release states. “Employers should also carefully consider overtime, shift work, flextime and requirements during Daylight Savings Time clock changes.

“By understanding chronotypes and the significance of the time of day,” says Sah, “individuals can become more ethical in the way they work, the quality of their work and the decisions they make at any moment.”

And employers, the researchers claim, can help make that happen.

Who knew?

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