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Build Your Career Office Life

Want to Ward Off an Unethical Boss? Try Religion

Want to Ward Off an Unethical Boss? Try Religion
Credit: fotorawin/Shutterstock

Although bosses are supposed to set a good example for their employees, they're not always the perfect role models employers expect them to be.

Whether it's asking their employees to lie for them or encouraging their staff to take the blame for something didn't do, there are times when bosses pressure their employees to compromise their ethics.

Rather than trying to figure out a way to rebuff their boss's attempt at having them compromise their morals, employees are better off trying to ensure they are never put in that position in the first place, according to a new research in the Academy of Management Journal.

One way to reject these unethical requests is by outwardly displaying a "moral symbol," such as a religious icon, a poster of a spiritual figure, or an ethically relevant quotation in your office, said Maryam Kouchaki, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

She said these types of symbols help stimulate moral awareness in others and create a perception that the person displaying them has high moral character.

"The idea is that being authentically moral and being proud of that and showing that can have positive consequences," Kouchaki, said in a recent interview with Kellogg Insight, the school's online magazine.

For the research, Kouchaki and co-author Sreedhari Desai, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School, conducted six different studies.

In one study, 148 college students played a game for fake prize money. Each participant was told that he or she would oversee two other fictitious teammates. The students were shown introductory emails from their team members. One of the emails included a morally themed quotation, while the other did not. [21 Ways to Be a Better Boss ]

As part of the game, the students had to determine whether one of their teammates should send an honest or deceptive message to another team. They also had to decide which of their two teammates would send it. The study's participants were told that sending the honest message would result in their team losing $18 of their earnings, while sending the deceptive message would result in only a $3 loss.

The study's authors found that only 46 percent of the participants who read the introductory email with the ethical quotation decided to send the deceptive message, compared with 64 percent of those who received the email without the quotation.

Additionally, the students who read the ethical quote and still ended up sending the deceptive message were more likely to have the teammate whose introductory email didn't include the quotation send it.

“We have a tendency to avoid making things dirty that are clean,” Kouchaki said.

In another study, the researchers surveyed 104 superior–subordinate pairs from a variety of organizations in India. They chose India because employees there frequently display religious icons at work.

The survey questioned the managers about their employees' work performance, tendency to display moral symbols and moral character. The employees were asked how often their bosses gave them unethical instructions, as well as how often their superiors stopped by their desks.

The researchers discovered that the employees who had moral symbols on display were more likely to be considered as having have high moral character by their bosses and less likely to have been asked to compromise their ethical beliefs.

Additionally, there was no difference in performance ratings, which shows no potential backlash, according to Kouchaki.

"There isn't enough research about how people who don't have power can make a difference," Kouchaki said. "We want people to feel that no matter what, they have control over their situations, and that there are things they can do to prevent questionable behaviors from others."

Chad  Brooks
Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.