Andrea Bazzoli, M.S., Washington State University Vancouver; Tahira M. Probst, Ph.D., Washington State University Vancouver

Drawing from previous research on occupational safety, business ethics, and economic stressors, we tested the hypothesis that higher workplace COVID-19 safety climate would be associated with lower COVID-19 related moral disengagement. In turn, we predicted that higher COVID-19 moral disengagement would be associated with lower enactment of preventive behaviors both at work and in nonwork settings (i.e., a spillover effect). Further, we investigated whether employee job insecurity would moderate the relationship between COVID-19 safety climate and moral disengagement.

The extent to which employees view their organization as valuing, rewarding, and reinforcing the CDC workplace guidelines constitutes the COVID-19 safety climate. Based on social cognitive theory, we propose that perceived workplace norms and values (i.e., the COVID-19 safety climate) can impact the development of moral disengagement mechanisms that employees subsequently use to morally justify a failure to enact preventative behaviors. In turn, employees who exhibit higher levels of moral disengagement will have lower “ethical intent” to enact such behaviors while at work. Further, the same organizational socialization processes will spillover to impact behaviors while in non-work settings because the recommended COVID-19 prevention behaviors are highly consistent regardless of setting. However, job insecurity, can interject in the organizational socialization process and potentially undo any positive effect of safety climate because it could trigger a cognitive reframing process as a reaction to the threat of losing one’s job.

We analyzed a three-wave lagged dataset of U.S. employees working on-site during the pandemic. One hundred forty-one participants completed all three waves. Most respondents were White (79%), male (60%), and graduated from college or higher (86%). The most represented industries were retail (19%), manufacturing (12%), accommodation and food services (10%), and education (10%). We estimated the model using a Bayesian estimator for three substantive reasons: (i) we were able to effectively incorporate previous organizational knowledge by means of specifying the prior distributions’ parameters, (ii) we mitigated concerns about sample size, as Bayesian techniques are less reliant on large sample sizes, and (iii) Bayesian estimators outperform ML estimators in handling nonnormal parameters (i.e., indirect effects.)

We found empirical support for the hypothesized model. As hypothesized, our posterior results show a positive effect of COVID-19 safety climate on COVID-19 moral disengagement (posterior distribution median = -0.24, 95% CI [-0.40, -0.09]). In turn, moral disengagement was negatively associated with employees’ enactment of CDC-recommended behaviors while at work and outside of the work setting (posterior medians: -0.18, 95% CI [-0.25, -0.12], and -0.28, 95% CI [-0.35, -0.20], respectively). The interaction effect’s posterior distribution median was 0.24 (95% CI [0.10, 0.38]), comporting with our expectation. Under conditions of low job insecurity, there is a negative relationship between COVID-19 safety climate and moral disengagement demonstrating the beneficial impact the workplace can have on reducing moral disengagement. However, when job insecurity is high, the relationship between COVID-19 safety climate and moral disengagement is null. As such, the indirect effect of COVID-19 safety climate on work and nonwork enactment of the CDC-recommended behaviors is conditional on job insecurity.

Our data highlight the increased blurring between people’s work and personal lives by demonstrating the impact that an employee’s workplace climate can have on activating (or suppressing) moral disengagement mechanisms and their subsequent effects on on work and non-work behaviors. Given the likelihood that a significant proportion of the workforce will remain remote or have more flexible in-person/remote arrangements after the pandemic is over, this has implications regarding the extent to which organizational investments in fostering a positive safety climate can generalize to those employees who may not be working onsite or have less traditional work arrangements. Our results, therefore, also offer a new perspective on the scope of safety management systems and indicate that the context in which safety should be viewed is broader than the physical workspace, but rather may extends to the safety-related decision making and behaviors that employees enact while away from work. Last, to stem the tide of the pandemic, we need to address the economic (job insecurity) crisis while also attending to public health messaging. Encouragingly, our data suggest that the workplace can play a key role in both areas.

Although this paper makes several theoretical and practical contributions, our results should be evaluated bearing in mind the following limitations. Since we used a convenience sample rather than a sample that is nationally representative of the current labor force, caution is warranted regarding the extent to which our results will generalize. A valuable next step would be to examine actual COVID-19 transmission rates within organizational settings to determine how these may vary as a function of the COVID-19 safety climate, employment instability, and activation of moral disengagement mechanisms. Along similar lines, it would also be beneficial to consider the multilevel context within which employees and businesses operate.

Tags: Applicable to all occupations/industries, Applied research, COVID-19, Empirical study, Non-Standard Employment Arrangements, Organization- and Job-Level Environments and Practices, Organizational Practices, Psychological and Biological Effects of Job Stress, Social and Organizational Environment, Workplace Stress; Outcomes; and Recovery