Purpose - Although there is growing research on the relationship between ethical leadership and subordinate work behaviors, limited research has examined the boundary conditions under which ethical leadership is more or less effective. The purpose of this paper is to investigate whether subordinate perceptions of role clarity in their job role influence the relationship between ethical leadership and subordinate work behaviors. Drawing on both social exchange and social learning theories, the authors predict that in contexts where subordinates perceive low levels of role clarity, the relationship between ethical leadership behavior and subordinate helping and deviant behaviors will be weaker. Design/methodology/approach - In total, 239 employees in the Chinese public sector completed surveys across three separate time points. Confirmatory factor analysis and hierarchical regression analysis were used to analyze the data. Findings - Analyses provided support for the hypothesized relationships. When subordinates perceived higher levels of role clarity the positive relationship between ethical leadership and helping behavior was stronger, and the negative relationship between ethical leadership and deviant behavior was stronger. Research limitations/implications - As with all research the findings of this study need to be viewed in light of its limitations. First, the use of data from a single set of respondents opens up the possibility of common method bias. Second, given the study used of a sample of public sector employees from one part of China, there would be value in future research examining whether the findings from the present study are generalizable to other industrial and cultural contexts. Practical implications - This research has a number of practical implications. Given that the authors found a significant positive relationship between ethical leadership and helping behavior, and a significant negative relationship between ethical leadership and deviant behavior, it is crucial for organizations to include ethical training as an essential part of leadership development programs. However, the findings also suggest at the same time as facilitating the development of ethical leadership behaviors amongst supervisory employees, it is important for organizations to also provide employees with clarity over what is expected of them in their jobs, and the means they should employ to facilitate goal achievement. Originality/value - This study responds to recent calls for more research to identify factors which may strengthen or mitigate the influence of ethical leadership in the workplace.