Letter vs. Spirit: Punishments After Rule Circumvention vs. Violation

Project: Research

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People do not only violate organizational rules; they also regularly circumvent rules. Rule circumvention entails complying with the letter of the rule but subverting its spirit. Although rule circumvention constitutes a form of non-compliance (i.e., it contravenes the spirit of a rule), there may be conflicting opinions regarding how to punish people who circumvent instead of violating rules. In real life, punishments for rule circumvention may also vary substantially. For example, during the Tokyo Olympic Games, the Danish Olympic track cycling squad circumvented the Union Cycliste Internationale’s (UCI’s) strict rules on sock height by using fabric tape on their shins to gain an aerodynamic advantage. Despite strong public criticisms and complaints, the UCI only issued an official warning, and the Danish team ultimately landed on the medal podium with a silver medal (Croxton, 2021). In contrast, following the allegations that the New England Patriots had circumvented rules using deflated footballs in their victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the 2014 American Football Conference Championship Game, the National Football League (NFL) fined the team US$1 million (one of the largest ever fines) and suspended their star quarterback Tom Brady (who denied any wrongdoing) for the first four games of the following season (MacMullan, 2015).Although rule circumvention is prevalent in organizations (Katz, 2010; Rieley, 2020; Wang, 2019), it is under-investigated in organizational research. We propose to investigate how people administer punishments when rules are circumvented. In particular, we are interested in understanding how and why the punishment rationales on which people rely may influence their punishment decisions for rule circumvention vs. rule violation. We suggest that two broad schools of thought on the use of punishments—just desserts theory and deterrence theory— represent two opposing perspectives on how rule circumvention should be punished. Specifically, a deterrence mindset or consideration of just desserts (proportionality) may lead to different punishment decisions for rule circumvention. In addition, we will investigate two important contextual factors that we expect to moderate the effect of rule circumvention on punishment decisions.We propose five complementary studies, with triangulated methods, to investigate how people judge and interpret rule violation vs. circumvention and how these judgments and interpretations affect their punishment decisions. Specifically, Studies 1 and 2 will use two original archival databases to investigate real punishment decisions on rule circumvention in different organizational contexts. Study 3 will use a controlled experiment to investigate managers’ decisions on punishing rule violation vs. circumvention. Finally, Studies 4 and 5 will supplement Study 3 by manipulating deservingness and deterrence factors to test how these influence people’s punishment decisions. Our proposed research will contribute to the literature on rule violation/circumvention, punishment, and business ethics by enhancing understanding of their nuanced relationships in organizational life.


Project number9043442
Grant typeGRF
StatusNot started
Effective start/end date1/01/23 → …