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Moral Quotes Keep Workplaces Ethical

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Two people in suits riding up escalator


People sometimes lie to get ahead.


Adding moral quotes to e-mail signatures primes recipients to act more honestly.

The Details

To better understand what makes people act unethically, social scientists Sreedhari Desai and Maryam Kouchaki put college students through a simulation on decision-making. The researchers randomly assigned 68 college students to one of  two conditions: a moral quote condition and a neutral quote condition. In both conditions, the simulation asked participants to respond to emails from subordinates as “Drew Meyer,” an upper-level manager in a fictional company. In the moral quote condition, one subordinate’s email signature included the adage, "Better to fail with honor than succeed by fraud." In the neutral quote condition, the subordinate’s  signature included the saying, "Success and luck go hand in hand."

After answering emails, participants read a memorandum requesting that Drew Meyer (the participants’ character) ask a subordinate to lie about the company’s finances.

Desai and Kouchaki found that only 29% of students in the moral quote condition made the unethical ask, as compared to 68% of participants in the neutral quote condition.

Why This Works

When we interact with ethical people, we tend to act more ethically ourselves. Priming the recipient with the concept of morality decreases the likelihood he or she will act unethically.

When This Works Best

Moral quotes work best when people could easily get away with cheating or lying.

The Original Study

Desai, S., & Kouchaki, M. (2016). Moral symbols: A necklace of garlic against unethical requests. Academy of Management Journal, amj-2015.

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Photo CC Alex Proimos