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Moral symbols can ward off evil bosses, study says

Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
Chicago Tribune

Believe what you will about spells to ward off evil spirits, but new research describes an easy way to ward off evil bosses.

Moral symbols — such as a religious poster hanging on a cubicle wall, or an ethically righteous quote embedded in the signature of an email — can keep employees from getting pulled into an employer’s dishonest business practices and can even discourage the employees’ superiors from engaging in nefarious acts, according to researchers from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Employees asked to fudge financials, help cover up a marital affair or participate in broad deceit of the kind exposed last year at Volkswagen, which admitted to cheating on emissions tests through a “defeat device” in its diesel engines, may feel forced to choose between their morals and their jobs.

However, displaying moral symbols can offer protection against unethical requests, according to the study.

“We want to empower people,” said Maryam Kouchaki, assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, who co-wrote the study with Sreedhari Desai at UNC. “How can we behave such that we reduce these incidents and requests?”

Kouchaki and Desai conducted five laboratory tests and one survey to test their theory that exposure to moral symbols would reduce immoral behavior.

In one study, 148 college students were asked to play a decision-making game with prize money at stake. Participants were told they would be paired with two other team members — Pat and Sam — whom they would meet via email.

Some participants received an introductory email from Pat that included the morally themed quotation: “Better to fail with honor than succeed by fraud.” Others got an email from Pat with no quotation, and none of the emails from Sam contained a quote.

Researchers found participants were less likely to send deceptive messages if they had been exposed to Pat’s moral quote.

To test the theory in real life, the researchers surveyed 104 pairs of bosses and subordinates from a variety of organizations in India, where religious icons are commonplace.

They found that subordinates who displayed moral symbols — such as pictures of Krishna, Buddha, Jesus or rosary beads — were more likely to be considered by their bosses to have high moral character and were less likely to have been asked to compromise their ethics at work.