Promoting more ethical behavior at work

Workers who display moral symbols on their desks may preempt unethical behavior by their boss.
(John Holcroft / Getty Images/Ikon Images)

People share many different things at work to try and brighten the drudgery of office life. They append moral quotes to an email signature line. They sit little statues of Buddha or other religious icons on their desk. They thumb-tack quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. or Winston Churchill to the drab, gray canvas of their cubicle wall.

But those small efforts at workplace enlightenment don’t just have an effect on the people who use them. New research shows they might also help preempt unethical behavior by their boss.

A forthcoming study in the Academy of Management Journal that was recently highlighted in the Harvard Business Review found that when employees display moral symbols — such as a virtuous quote in emails or religious images hung on a cubicle wall — it could help prevent their managers from asking them to cheat or engage in other bad behavior.


“It causes others in their vicinity to behave slightly more ethical,” Sreedhari Desai, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s business school, said in an interview. “If the person happens to be your boss, they would be less likely to ask you to do something that’s unethical.”

The study, which Desai wrote with coauthor Maryam Kouchaki of Northwestern University, included five laboratory studies and one study of employees and managers in Indian workplaces. The lab studies set up experiments in which the participants were asked to take part in a decision-making game where they stood to lose money and had to decide whether to engage in deceptive behavior — or ask their virtual teammates to do so. When they received emails from these virtual teammates that included a moral quote — Sophocles’ dictum that it’s better to “fail with honor than succeed by fraud” — they were less likely to lie or ask others to deliver a deceptive message.

Meanwhile, the study in India looked at 104 pairs of workers and their managers. It surveyed the supervisors to ask how often their subordinates displayed religious symbols at their desks, such as images of Krishna or Buddha, and the subordinates about how often their bosses asked them to do something dubious. Even after controlling for other factors, such as job satisfaction, those who displayed religious symbols were less likely to be asked to act unethically.

Desai, who wrote her dissertation on the same topic, got the idea for the research after a student asked her how to turn the theoretical ideas about ethics she was teaching into real-world answers.

“One of my students raised his hand and said, ‘All this is good, but if my boss asks me to do something unethical, it’s very hard to say no,’” she said. It made her wonder if a more bottoms-up solution to resolving ethical problems could help, rather than just trying to get leaders to act more principled themselves. “Is there some way to preempt those kinds of unethical questions to begin with?” she thought.

Desai recognizes that such symbols have cultural boundaries, and is quick to say that what works in India, where there’s less distance between religion and the rest of society, may not apply to U.S. workplaces. But she does think culturally appropriate moral symbols could still have similar effects.


For instance, part of her dissertation research, which was not part of the recent paper, looked at how much people spent in a pay-as-you-wish cafe located in Salt Lake City. After the community-minded cafe hung images of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa and other towering social figures on its walls, people began spending roughly 20% more for similar amounts of food than they had before the proprietor decorated the place with the posters.

Still, couldn’t there be a downside for people who display such symbols, such as coming across as holier-than-thou? Desai said her research looked for such backlashes.

“We wanted to know if there are hidden costs,” she said. Bosses might think “‘She’s moral, so I’m not going to ask her to fudge the numbers.’ But then when it comes time to promote people, are they seen as not being a team player?” Desai said her research did not show evidence of such a problem.

Lab studies and research from India may not definitively tell us how much such “moral symbols” can really help turn around an unethical boss. But it does seem they’re unlikely to hurt. Desai recently got an email from someone who’d heard about her research after having a bad experience with a rude client. He added a quote from philosopher Eric Hoffer about rudeness being “a weak man’s imitation of strength” to the bottom of his email signature line. He ended up getting an apology from the client.

“It’s nonconfrontational,” Desai said. “It’s a subtle, sneaky way to influence people.”

Jena McGregor writes a column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.




March 6, 5:35 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misspelled Mother Teresa’s name as Theresa.