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Moral Exclusion at the Workplace: When Differences in Values Lead to Abusive Supervision

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

Whenever there is an international or inter-ethnic conflict, whether it’s in the form of a war, invasion, exploitation, or terrorism, we often hear about the phenomenon of moral exclusion (Opotow, 1990). According to Opotow, each person has a scope of justice, a psychological boundary separating people that are perceived as deserving fair treatment and to which moral rules apply from those for which justice concerns are seen as irrelevant. As Opotow and Weiss put it, “Norms, moral rules and concerns about rights and fairness govern our conduct toward those inside our scope of justice, but those who are morally excluded are perceived to be expendable, undeserving, exploitable, and irrelevant.” From the Holocaust to Apartheid to current-day acts of terrorism, we are appalled by the violence and cruelty that moral exclusion can result in.

However, moral exclusion also occurs in our everyday work lives. According to a new study, more than 13% of working people in the United States are victims of abusive forms of supervision, or nonphysical hostility perpetrated by their immediate superiors. Abusive supervisory behaviors include undermining, public denigration, humiliation, and explosive outbursts.

Researchers examined the conditions leading to abusive supervision and found that perceptions of deep differences in values, attitudes and personality, as well as relationship conflicts and perceived deficits in subordinate’s performance to be key factors. After studying 183 independent supervisor-subordinate dyads from seven organizations, researchers found that deep value differences evoke relationship conflicts, which produces lower evaluations of subordinate performance, which in turn, lead to higher levels of abusive supervision. This combination seemed to place the subordinates outside the supervisor’s scope of justice, leading them to engage in abusive supervision.

As our workforce becomes increasingly diverse, effort is being made to address surface-level differences (objective differences in age, gender, and race) through diversity and intercultural communication trainings. However, it is important to note that individuals who are similar in age, gender and race can and do differ in their values, attitudes and personalities. Therefore, it is important for organizations to broaden supervisors’ scope of justice by endorsing concepts of pluralism – that there is value in promoting tolerance and appreciation for divergent values.

Opotow, S. (1990). Moral exclusion and injustice: An introduction. Journal of Social Issues, 46, 1–20.

Opotow, S., & Weiss, L. 2000. Denial and the process of moral exclusion in environmental conflict. Journal of Social Issues, 56, 475–490.

Tepper, B.J., Moss, S.E., & Duffy, M.K. (2011). Predictors of abusive supervision supervisor perceptions of deep=level dissimilarity, relationship conflict, and subordinate performance. Academy of Management Journal, 54, 279-294.


Regina Kim

Regina Kim is a doctoral student in Social-Organizational Psychology at Teacher’s College, Columbia University.  She graduated from Smith College with a B.A in Psychology and East Asian Literature and received her master’s degree in Organizational Psychology from Yonsei University, South Korea.  Regina worked as a researcher at institutions like Children’s Hospital Boston, Harvard… MORE >

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