Unethical Leadership: Selective Respect


By Linda Fisher Thornton

We’ve seen selective respect too often. Beyond harming the people who are disrespected, it also destroys trust, and leads to chaotic environments and fear-based cultures. Even though we’ve all seen selective respect in action, we may not have had the vocabulary to describe why it’s wrong (beyond calling it mean or inappropriate). This week I’m digging in to those details. 

I define “selective respect” as doling out respect only under certain circumstances. It is not an ethical leadership behavior since it applies the ethical value of respect conditionally and not universally. 

Examples of Selective Respect in Action:

  • Teachers picking on certain students while encouraging others.
  • “Cool” kids teasing less popular kids while being chummy with their friends.
  • Employees repeating ethnic jokes or otherwise demeaning certain groups of people.
  • Public leaders treating people in their groups (political, racial, religious, gender, etc.) kindly while alienating and attacking others. 

The times when respect is applied may be predictable (certain people or groups are predictably respected or not respected) or unpredictable (who is treated respectfully varies from moment to moment).

Important Ethical Principles Selective Respect Violates:

  • Respect for Others (the ethical principle is not respect for certain others, it is respect for all others)
  • Respect for Differences (this requires moving beyond the “like me” bias)
  • Trustworthiness (only some people can trust you to treat them well)
  • Moral Awareness (shows a lack of awareness that respect is a minimum standard for ethical leadership and must be universally applied)
  • Ethical Competence (selective respect is a sign of failure to stay ethically  competent)
  • Ethical Thinking (believing that some people are “not worthy” of respect is unethical thinking)
  • Modeling Expected Behavior (selective respect shows others the route to an unethical path, multiplying the error and the harm it generates)

Are you tired of people talking about toxic leadership behaviors as different “styles” or different approaches to leadership, without saying what really needed to be said? When you see leaders using selective respect, call it what it is – unethical leadership.


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©2019 Leading in Context LLC




In the post comments, one reader mentioned the risks of “calling out” an ethical leader in a toxic culture. If you work in a toxic culture, read Taking on a Workplace Bully to assess the risks before you call out unethical leadership. 

For More on Unethical Leadership: Unethical Thinking Leads to Unethical Leadership

About Linda Fisher Thornton
Linda Fisher Thornton is Founder and CEO of Leading in Context, and author of the award-winning book 7 Lenses. She teaches as Adjunct Assoc. Prof. for University of Richmond SPCS. She is leading a movement to help leaders and organizations Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership.

21 Responses to Unethical Leadership: Selective Respect

  1. Pingback: 10 Things That Need To Be With You Everywhere You Go | La Maison Tellier

  2. Pingback: Call out unethical leaders when you see them – Lead Up for Women

  3. Naomi, I think that “no one covers for you when you’re off” could mean that you’re irreplaceable! It’s easy to “read meaning into” what people say so finding out what they mean is helpful. If you have good communication with the supervisor, you might want to get clarification when the time is right.


  4. Naomi Segal says:

    What do you do when a supervisor is selective about their respect to the same person or people? So sometimes the supervisor is clearly being respectful, and then will another time say something that is massively disrespectful and hurtful? Example: we incredibly value the work you do as part of the big team. or. No, no one covers for you when you’re off. [implying that your work is not needed or valuable.]


  5. RJ Wood says:

    I was using the Webster dictionary definition of civility and respect. You have provided a different definition for the terms. So what term do we use to recognize extraordinary people like a Ruth Bader Ginsberg? I think you are saying everyone deserves a basic level of decent, fair and equal treatment just because they exist and I agree with that position.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for your comment, RJ. I think about civility as “holding back” respect. In that sense, civility isn’t really enough in terms of how we treat others. Check out this graphic that shows a spectrum that includes tolerance, civility and respect and see what you think – https://leadingincontext.com/2016/05/25/what-does-genuine-respect-look-like/.


  7. Thanks Renae. Ethical accountability at its most effective comes from the top, so it is critically important that top leaders model respect for the organization and champion ethical accountability. I wrote about that in “Critical Roles of the Ethical CEO.” You can read it here – https://leadingincontext.com/2014/08/13/ceo/.


  8. Renae says:

    Great article. Respect in our nation as a whole needs a revisit.
    Too many toxic work place environments are both supported and encouraged by top leadership under the disguised as “cleaning house”. Unethical practices by top leadership from ageism to forced retirement to favoritism needs a checks and balance system. Organizations ruin the lives of individuals who have given many years of their lives for the success and growth of the organization, and in the final years of their career face such unethical behaviors.
    Speaking from experience.


  9. RJ Wood says:

    I think we misuse the term respect. Everyone is entitled to civility even people you dislike. You earn respect by your behavior, actions and deeds. To use the terms as synonymous diminishes the value of those that have earned respect. I agree that a manager that is civil to some and not others is unethical.


  10. Yes, we must model respect by being respectful ourselves, even when that is difficult or inconvenient.


  11. Felix Harvey says:

    Thank you for this article, and your responses to it. I will be saving your article in my leadership library so that I can review it periodically.

    Remember to call out unethical behavior such as selective respect in a respectful way. I have found that disrespectful people are people too and may have no idea that they are indeed in violation of ethical principles, in fact may not have it in their current repertoire.


  12. Yes, absolutely, having a bullying manager teaches us the “what not to do” of leadership, and makes us want to seek something better in our own leadership. Hopefully people have also had a positive role model somewhere along the way, whether it be a parent, relative, teacher, friend or manager.


  13. I think bullying behavior from a manager is often a sign of how they are being mistreated and speaks poorly of a company’s culture. Having been through this myself, I will say that it does teach us who we DO NOT want to be and makes us better managers.


  14. Yes, some employees move on because they find they can’t thrive and grow in a toxic, unethical environment. Ageism is a type of selective respect (not to mention an example of selective application of human rights). People can have vibrant work lives well into their 70’s or early 80’s, and employers can benefit from their extensive work experience and innovative ideas.


  15. RC says:

    Ethics in the workplace is not a new management topic. Modern companies have a mission, vision, and philosophy and code of conduct and ethical standards. Ethical standards can vary from industry to industry and position to position. If you object to the co’s values for integrity, fairness, honesty, you better have sound and practicable ideas for improvement. Your personal values don’t have to be the co’s. Toxic culture is a valid reason people move on.

    BTW, with so many “young” companies on the rise, where are your ethics concerns for ageism/being ageist. This is a rampant trait among young unethical leaders.


  16. That’s a great point, Georgia. It’s not always safe to call out unethical behavior if you are in a culture that doesn’t reward ethical behavior. I contributed to this article about that issue for BBC Worklife. It shares some ideas about what to do: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20141003-confronting-a-workplace-bully


  17. Well said, Bud. If everyone learned how to disagree without being disagreeable, the world would definitely be a better place.


  18. Thank you for your comment Colin. I think the first step is being willing to talk about it in clear terms. Calling it unethical leadership helps us recognize the urgency of the issue.


  19. Georgia says:

    Most times, calling out unethical behavior or actions of leadership results in being fired and a possible label of ‘trouble maker’. Are the repercussions worth being unemployed?


  20. Bud Kulesza says:

    This article make some great points! In respecting differences of opinion, don’t be afraid to speak out against ideas that you don’t sgree with . Respecting an individual’s right and duty to express their opinions is important, just don’t sacrifice your own right and duty to express your opinion. We must not avoid discourse if we are truly seeking resolution. In the end we can always disagree without being disagreeable. Thanks for the article Linda Fisher Thornton.


  21. Colin says:

    I love this idea. The challenge is clearing the vast majority of leaders who are unethical and having some method to pull in, groom, and strengthen ethical leaders. How do we as a society cleanse ourselves of this serious issue that has always plagued human society?


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