'Moral Symbols' at Work Can Keep Bad Bosses in Line
'Righteous' quotations, religious items can help workers avoid unethical requests
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 16, 2016 9:03 AM CST
Pray that the unethical bosses stay away.   (Shutterstock)

(Newser) – Could the whole subprime mess have been avoided if bankers had some inspirational Gandhi quotes laying around? That's the question the Chicago Tribune asks after reviewing a study that shows employees who display "moral symbols"—an "ethically righteous quote" or religious item like rosary beads—are not only less likely to be asked to engage in dishonest practices at work, but also may influence their higher-ups to exhibit better behavior. "The idea is that being authentically moral and being proud of that and showing that can have positive consequences," study co-author Maryam Kouchaki says in Kellogg Insight. The study, published in the Academy of Management Journal, also found workers who show these symbols aren't subject to backlash. The Northwestern University and University of North Carolina researchers used a series of five lab experiments and one survey to venture into the waters of workplace ethics.

In one test, the scientists asked subjects to send a deceptive or honest email (their pretend company would "lose" more money if they sent the honest email) to "colleagues" who either had or had not sent an intro email with an ethical quotation attached. While 64% of the participants sent the deceptive email to the imaginary co-worker who hadn't included the quotation, only 46% of subjects sent the deceptive email to a co-worker who had included it. "We have a tendency to avoid making things dirty that are clean," Kouchaki explains. Knowing this could empower employees of an unscrupulous boss. "We want people to feel that ... they have control over their situations, and that there are things they can do to prevent questionable behaviors from others," she adds. (Another way to fight a bad boss: Be passive-aggressive.)