Workers will become cynical and could leave if employers drop their caring facade when the going gets tough, a researcher from The University of Queensland says.
But workers will go beyond the call of duty if employers "walk the talk" and live up to the ethical code they promote, UQ Business School PhD graduate Dr Stewart Arnold has found.
Dr Arnold says organisations are better off watering down their ethical code, core values and key principles than being unmasked when their stance is tested.
It follows Dr Arnold's research on organisational values in times of change and crisis, which included talking to almost 400 hospital staff members in Australia and Singapore.
Among the staff members were those at a hospital in Singapore a few months after the SARS outbreak in 2003.
Hospital officials sent letters of reassurance to overseas families of staff members, hired additional temporary staff, and provided infection control training in the community during the outbreak.
These actions impressed staff members, with a feeling of pride in their hospital and the commitment to its core values.
"Staff members felt a strong camaraderie and talked a lot about teamwork," Dr Arnold said. "The battle analogy seems pretty apt: privates and colonels alike, sharing the same bunker."
But some staff members felt stigmatised away from work, with one employee accused at a party of being "dirty" because she worked at a hospital.
Dr Arnold said the outbreak presented "an ideal opportunity" to study employee experiences and focus on what they thought of their hospital's values during the crisis.
Staff members were critical because there were no debriefing sessions after the crisis, few rest days, and little accurate information, he said.
Dr Arnold said organisations could make employees cynical if their actions were not in line with core values or ethical codes.
"Employees tend to be cynical and unimpressed with their organisation if they think it is not walking the talk," he said. "They are more likely to leave the organisation.
"If staff show signs of cynicism about management's words, it would actually be easier to change the words than the actions.
"It might be better to downplay the importance of any espoused principles or values - or simply stop espousing them."
These principles or values were often found on an organisation's website, in newsletters and press releases, and on posters in foyers and boardrooms, Dr Arnold said.
Organisations did not necessarily have to come up with a heady set of values, given many employees were already prepared to work hard, he said.
"There are many behaviours that employees will voluntarily engage in, for no expected reward, that benefit their employing organisation. They are a good indication of the level of staff commitment to their organisation."
Since completing the research and graduating from UQ, Dr Arnold has become a lecturer at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Media: Cathy Stacey (3346 8068)