Just how much bad behavior goes down in modern workplaces? According to the 2013 National Business Ethics Survey, about 1 in 10 employees has felt pressure to comply with unethical requests, and employees surveyed said that around a quarter of the misconduct they’ve noticed is committed by senior managers. What’s more, only a third of rule-breaking incidents are onetime affairs.
Poor business ethics are just as much a business problem as an ethical one. Left to fester, it can create toxic work environments that reward destructive behaviors and cause distrust and dysfunction within and among teams. But according to recent research, there might be a surprisingly effective talisman for warding off unethical conduct, especially when the pressure for it comes from the top down: the quote or motto you put at the bottom of your email signature.
To the extent that we notice them at all, those messages can come off as merely benign or as hopelessly cheesy notes of inspiration from well-intentioned colleagues. Chances are you’ve rolled your eyes at one or two and completely disregarded many more. But even those quotes by Gandhi or Hellen Keller that we’ve seen a hundred times may still hold a subtle power over our conduct, as long as they contain an ethical message.
In a series of studies published in the Academy of Management Journal, we examined how displaying what we’ve called “moral symbols” can impact behavior. Moral symbols are words, images, or mundane objects that have come to be associated with morality. Since many of us find moral guides from a variety of sources, they can encompass many things–not just quotes at the bottoms of emails, but also images of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. or John Lennon, and religious symbols like the cross.
There are three reasons we hypothesized why moral symbols may help shield employees from carrying out bosses’ unethical requests:
- They may communicate an employee’s moral character, making it uncomfortable for a manager to ask that person to do something unethical.
- They may create moral awareness and redirect morally wavering bosses from considering outcomes without regard to their ethical implications.
- They may signal that an employee is more likely to blow the whistle on unethical behavior.
We asked research subjects to assume the role of a leader who had to interact with two fictitious subordinates, Pat and Sam. Some participants received emails from Pat that contained a moral quote at the bottom: “Success without honor is worse than fraud.” Others saw a more neutral quote in Pat’s email: “Success and luck go hand in hand.” Both were generically inspirational, but only one overtly moral.
Participants then had to decide whether to ask one of their subordinates (Pat or Sam) to tell a business lie. Only 46% of those who read the moral quote chose to issue that request, whereas nearly 64% of those who saw the neutral one did so. What’s more, among subjects who decided to give the unethical instruction, those who saw the moral message in Pat’s emails were more likely to ask Sam instead–less than 24% to be exact, compared with the more than 55% who chose Pat, who’d sent a more neutral message.
Later, we conducted a separate study exposing participants to T-shirts saying either “YourMorals.Org” or “YourMoney.Org.” We found basically the same results.
But what if you succeed in refusing to do your boss’s unethical bidding, only to be labeled “not a team player”? The risks of that are real: The National Business Ethics Survey found that one in five employees who refuse to comply with unethical requests face retaliation.
So in another simulation, we tested whether there were any hidden backlash effects associated with displaying moral symbols. We wanted to see whether being perceived as moral would also lead supervisors to avoid socializing with those subordinates, or even to withhold rewards like promotions. And surprisingly, we didn’t find evidence of either. This could be because participants in the role of managers were unaware that being exposed to a moral symbol was influencing their behavior. Since the effect appeared to be subconscious, the backlash effect may have been reduced.
How about moral symbols in real companies? We studied supervisors and their subordinates in Indian companies to find out–asking managers if they’d seen any moral symbols, in the form of religious images (Krishna, Jesus, quotes from the Koran), in their team members’ workspaces. We then asked employees how often they felt their bosses asked them to do something morally questionable, like lie to clients.
After controlling for job performance, satisfaction at work, and so forth, we found that those who displayed moral symbols got fewer unethical requests from their managers. There was also no sign that those who displayed moral symbols got penalized for it in their performance reviews.
So the lesson seems to be that your boss and colleagues may be subconsciously judging your moral character based on a host of small, outward signs–including the messages beneath your email signature. If you fancy yourself as having a strong ethical identity, you may as well let it show.
Sreedhari D. Desai is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Maryam Kouchaki is assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.