If you’re lucky, you will spend the entirety of your career working for people who are upstanding individuals, leaders who are unquestionable in their integrity and ethical fiber. If you’re unlucky, you could find yourself in the same predicament as an exiting top White House aide who capped her tenure in government with an admission that she lied for her boss.
The unfortunate reality of professional life is,there are leaders out there who are unethical, who bend the rules, who cut corners, or who flout the law altogether to get what they want. The even more unfortunate reality is sometimes these bosses enlist subordinates to their “cause,” maybe even pressuring them to go against their own values. When you work for someone like that, how do you protect yourself?
Sreedhari Desai, from the University of North Carolina, and Maryam Kouchaki, from the Kellogg School of Management, conducted an experiment to test how effective one strategy is in protecting yourself from an erring boss.
In the “Deception Game,” the two researchers created a situation wherein participants had a financial incentive to lie. They were told that they were the leaders of their respective groups and they had to ask their subordinates to act for them. They could communicate with group members through e-mail. Some group members were allowed to display “moral symbols” in the form of quotations – such as, “Better to fail with honor than succeed by fraud” – in their e-mail signatures.
Desai and Kouchaki observed two striking results: First, the moral quotes actually reduced the likelihood that the leaders would choose to lie on their own. Second, those leaders who chose to lie even after reading the quote steered away from the group member whose e-mail signature carried the moral symbol. The chances that such subordinate would be co-opted to lie dropped from roughly 1 in 2 to less than 1 in 4.
The researchers saw similar results using other moral symbols, such as a T-shirt bearing the text, “YourMorals.com”: A person wearing this shirt was less likely to be asked to cheat, compared with another person wearing a shirt that had the writing, “YourMoney.com.”
Jesse Bering, a psychologist and author, shares a similar experience with moral symbols in his 2012 article, “Don’t trust the Godless.” During one of his trips, Bering arrived at the rail station of a European seaside town notorious for cab drivers who overcharge. Outside, he saw two cabs waiting for passengers. One of the cars had a crucifix dangling from the rearview mirror and a Bible resting on the dashboard. The other had no visible religious icons. Without hesitation, Bering went for the first cab. He felt he would be safer with that driver because research has shown that believers who are reminded of God’s presence tend to act toward promoting social harmony. They keep their selfish tendencies in check and are, instead, motivated to do good deeds. Take note: Bering is an atheist.
Moral symbols – or what Desai and Kouchaki call moral “necklaces of garlic” – work because they increase moral awareness. They serve as subtle cues reminding us to care about doing what is right, not just what is profitable. But it isn’t as simple as placing an icon of a religious figure on your work desk.
It’s important that you choose a moral symbol that is authentic, something that sincerely represents your values. Otherwise, your moral necklace of garlic may send the wrong message. And remember that your moral symbol doesn’t have to be religious in nature. A saying about the importance of integrity or even a poster bearing your corporate values can also serve as reminders to stay on the straight and narrow.
In the first Despicable Me movie, if you remember, the main character Gru stopped his shrinking rampage when he saw the ticket to his children’s ballet recital. A simple piece of paper was enough to remind him that his actions could cause harm to his family, prompting him to reverse course and do the right thing.
To maximize its effect, display your moral symbol so that it is easily visible to others. And lastly, choose a symbol that is respectful of others in the workplace.
Of course, moral symbols cannot eliminate unethical requests completely. At best, they will reduce the chances that you will be asked to do something that goes against your values. So make sure you are aware of more traditional methods of stopping unethical behavior because you never know when your luck will run out.
The author is an Audit partner and the Ethics officer of Navarro Amper & Co., the local member firm of Deloitte Southeast Asia Ltd. – a member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited – comprising Deloitte practices operating in Brunei, Cambodia, Guam, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.