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Surprising behavioral science you can use to find out if your employer is ethical

If you are eager to determine whether your current or potential employer really lives up to their values, or whether they’re simply virtue-signaling by paying lip service to desirable or in-demand ethical principles, here are four suggestions.

Surprising behavioral science you can use to find out if your employer is ethical
[Source image: Vaniatos/iStock]

Aside from the moral or ethical imperative, there are two clear benefits to being seen as a conscious, kind, and caring company. Namely, customer loyalty and advocacy, and attracting, engaging, and retaining sought-after employees, who are typically interested in being good organizational citizens and often dislike the idea of being associated with a selfish or greedy brand.

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Long before the recent rise of ESG, behavioral science and consumer psychology had highlighted the fascinating motivations driving the emotional and intellectual relationship we have with brands, and why it is so important for an employer to consider clients’ and humans’ deep psychological traits and core values. In simple terms, brands represent a promise to deliver something valuable to consumers; and to the degree that brands have a public reputation, this can inform our choices as to how we might achieve a desired experience. 

Crucially, this experience is not just functional (buying useful, tasty, cheap, and healthy products), it is also psychological. We attribute human-like personality traits to brands (Apple is creative, Google is smart, Coke is warm, Red Bull is bold, etc.), and gravitate toward those we perceive as congruent with our own values and identities. You may remember the Apple versus PC (Microsoft) ad, which highlights the significant differentiation in consumer choice that brands can provide even when nearly identical products are at stake. In this instance, picking one over the other comes down to a matter of lifestyle, character, and identity.

But what happens when every brand pretends to be in the business of doing good, which is of course a statistical impossibility? By definition, only a minority of brands (and people) can stand out for their altruism (or any other trait), since we can only make such assessments through direct comparison to others (who may be less so).

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In this sense, brands are no different to people. They all see themselves as good and nice, but it is the perception of others that provides a more accurate profile of their moral character. Incidentally, organizations have been in the business of signaling positive traits for some time, and in some instances, without any shame. For example, consider Enron’s espoused values of “Respect, Integrity, Communication, and Excellence.” Likewise, almost every company in the world would include principles of diversity, innovation, and some element of corporate social responsibility as core values on their websites, not to mention unlocking or unleashing human potential. Yet, if such statements were true, then why would 85% of employees (in the world’s most successful organizations) report being unhappy with their jobs?

If you are eager to determine whether your current or potential employer really lives up to their values, or whether they’re simply virtue-signaling by paying lip service to desirable or in-demand ethical principles, here are four suggestions.

Listen to other employees

While it is easier than ever for brands to advertise their good intentions and effectively claim whatever they want online, the digital age has also empowered us to access people’s real views on organizations large and small. Just as you might inspect customer reviews to help inform your decisions on Amazon or Yelp, you can also access employee reviews on Glassdoor and similar sites. Note, this also includes the worst places to work, according to people who actually work there, who will highlight the gap between a brand’s official PR image, and the type of culture they actually have. 

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See how they handle contentious issues

To some degree, principles, such as ethics and fairness, are fairly universal, in that most people would generally agree on profound moral or immoral issues, irrespective of background and values (not violently lashing out at colleagues when you’re feeling angry, for instance). But a better way to assess the fit between your personal values and the values of a brand is to see how they behave in difficult situations, the kind that requires showing one’s real values and making tough choices. For example, when JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs voted against working from home; when Ben & Jerry’s announced that they would stop selling ice cream in Israeli settlements; when Google decided to fire an employee who questioned the company’s gender-diversity policy; when Apple reversed its decision to hire a leader deemed too right-wing by existing employees, and the list goes on.

In each of these instances, we can learn a great deal about what each company actually stands for. Of course, most moral choices of this nature must have a cost, the likes of which will often include the risk of upsetting people, including clients and employees. Yet it is precisely when organizations decide to do something that doesn’t need to be done, or that could even harm them financially, that we truly see their convictions, and what they perceive to be “the right thing” for them.

Remember that nobody is a saint

Recently, a colleague of ours noted that he would be happy to work for everyone except big tobacco, based on the evident issue that smoking kills. Our response was, “So who would you like to work for?” Though big tobacco may rarely be nominated as the bastion of benevolence, how different is it, really, from the industries of big oil, banking, pharma, retail, airlines, politics, corporate law firms, the Catholic Church, or big tech?

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When it comes to finding a moral employer, it may sometimes seem that the only feasible alternative is to abstain from employment altogether. At times, this is exactly what drives people into entrepreneurship—which can sometimes (rather unfortunately) result either in less successful versions of the above or in equally flawed manifestations of a founder’s core values. However you cut it, there is always a dark side. To be sure, from a moral standpoint, it is preferable to engage in (rather than defect from) the battle to improve the world. If you don’t like something about an industry, company, or leadership, then what are you doing to change it? Becoming a philosopher may not be the most helpful solution.

Consider some form of activism

It is always easier to complain than to actively get out there and fix things. Managing ourselves is hard enough already, so just imagine influencing others. And yet, our biggest value in society and the world comes from our ability to make others better. Getting others to behave in a more ethical and prosocial way; committing ourselves to a good cause; and acting responsibly to positively impact our teams, organizations, and institutions, are some of the most effective ways of aligning our values with our careers.

We are not, despite insistence to the contrary, passive consumers, nor are we passive employees. Unless we opt out and join the apathetic ranks of bystanders, we can each choose to be active agents of change. This is why leadership is so important. It is the best way to combat the status quo and replace it with something better; and the world today is in desperate need of moral and ethical leaders. 

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When it comes to finding a moral employer, the most important choice is not where you decide to work, but how you decide to impact that organization. And as long as you try your best, you should not be too disappointed if your employer lets you down. Life’s too short, and you should take your talent somewhere else. Wherever your path leads you next, you will have learned something about the world and the values that drive you. That is a powerful starting point from which to envision the future you wish to inhabit. 


Nathalie Nahai is an international speaker and the author of  Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion. She lectures internationally on the digital application of behavioral sciences, has hosted Guardian podcasts, and contributes to national publications, TV, and radio on the subject. 

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, PhD is an international authority in leadership assessment, people analytics, and talent management. He is the chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup and a professor of business psychology at both University College London and Columbia University. His most recent book is Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It).

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