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Subtle Ways to Get Your Employees to Think and Act Ethically

Can displaying pictures of children really prompt people to make better decisions at work?

Posted by Dawn Lomer on October 17th, 2011

You wouldn’t think that having a face on your company logo, hand sanitizer in your office or a baseball poster in the hallway would influence your employees to act ethically or otherwise, but research is showing that even the most insignificant elements of the environment can be a powerful influence on behavior.

In fact, non-conscious parts of our brains have a much bigger influence on our day-to-day decisions than most might think, says Scott Reynolds, Associate Professor of Business Ethics at the Foster School of Business, University of Washington.

I got a chance to interview Reynolds at the ECOA Annual Conference in Seattle last month and was fascinated by his research into what goes on behind the scenes in our brains and how it affects our behavior. His conclusions provide valuable insight into how a company can supplement its code of conduct.

Non-Conscious Decision-Making

Reynolds compares “the part of our brain that is constantly functioning, constantly helping us make decisions, but we’re not aware of its processes or its conclusions” to a computer operating system that is working behind the scenes while the operator is working in a software package.

[isight-ad]To illustrate the point, Reynolds described an experiment that researchers conducted with two groups of students. Each group was assigned a word jumble, one group using words related to being old and the other with words related to being young. The experiment yielded statistically significant differences between the speed at which the two groups moved after working with the words, indicating that the words in the jumble had influenced, unconsciously, the subjects’ perception of themselves as being old or young, translating into either walking slowly or quickly. When questioned, the students didn’t recall the words having a particular theme.


“These influences are ubiquitous, everywhere, and substantial,” he says. “We’re not just talking about insignificant things like how we walk down the hallway, but we’re finding some fairly important behaviors that are being influenced. These can be very meaningful, with long-term implications and affect our ethical behaviors.”

Influences on Behavior

Another experiment showed that people who steered a mouse through a maze with a picture of cheese at the exit behaved less ethically after the experiment than people who steered a mouse through a maze with an owl at the entrance. The results, says Reynolds, suggest that people unconsciously act less ethically when working towards a reward and more ethically when they feel they are being watched, even though they have no idea that they are associating a reward or being watched with their behavior.

So what should the savvy leader learn from this research? “First, you cannot take your environment for granted,” says Reynolds. He suggests looking around the office and dissecting it to see what ethics messages employees are receiving from their environment.

Are there cheques lying around? Is there a copy of Money magazine in the reception area? “One study has shown that when you put money in front of people, they are much more likely to engage in unethical behavior,” says Reynolds. And apparently it doesn’t have to be actual money; just the mention of the word is enough to cause people to act less ethically.

On flip side, however, a bottle of hand sanitizer in the office can prompt employees to make more ethical decisions. “Research suggests that by having people use Purell before engaging in work they have a better mindset about ethical and moral values,” says Reynolds. “Purity: that’s what’s on their minds and that’s what’s influencing their decision making.” Air freshener has been shown to have the same effect. Pictures of children have been shown to prompt ethical behavior, as well pictures of eyes, or even a picture with a shape that suggest eyes.

Alignment is Key

Sounds a bit “airy-fairy”? “It all has to be understood in the larger picture of what’s going on in the organization,” says Reynolds. “I use the term alignment. An ethical culture is comprised of thousands, if not millions, of components.” He lists the formal elements of the culture, such as code of conduct, hiring and firing systems and presence of an ethics officer. “But then there are these softer elements,” he says. “Conversations we have at water coolers, the symbols we have in our offices and in our lobbies and the messages that they send. And the idea here is that if you’re trying to achieve a goal then all of these elements need to be aligned in the same direction. They need to be telling the same story.”

What story is your office telling?

Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Manager of Communications

Dawn Lomer is the Manager of Communications at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.

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