Changing frame: Family photos on your desk could make you more ethical on job

Got your grinning kid or smiling spouse in a frame on your desk? You’re less likely to lie to your boss or pad that expense report.


Dave Mayer

Dave Mayer

That’s the key finding of a study co-authored by Dave Mayer, a business ethics professor at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. It’s certainly among the most down-to-earth insights in a trove of research by Mayer and his colleagues that explores ethics in the workplace from multiple angles-micro to macro-from the influence of family pictures in the office to the fundamental organizational environment.

Mayer’s collaborators are Ashley Hardin of Washington University’s Olin Business School, who received a doctorate from Ross, and Chris Bauman of University of California, Irvine’s Merage School of Business. Mayer discussed some of what they’ve learned about ethics in the workplace and, given the pandemic, how it all might be playing out in the work-from-home place.

In short, your work seems to suggest, at least in part, we’re governed by forces out of our control or at least things we thought were unrelated when it comes to our professional behavior.

Although it is true that we are influenced by things out of our control and out of our conscious awareness, in my view what unites my research is a focus on how the context we are in influences our ethical and unethical behavior. The research on family photos highlights that our physical context, what we see when we look around, has implications for reducing unethical conduct. The research on an organizational ethical climate focuses on the social and organizational context. The policies, practices and procedures that get rewarded and supported in organizations have a huge impact on whether leaders and frontline employees will be ethical or not.

What ties together these research articles is the idea that our immediate environment-whether it be the physical, social or organizational context-plays a large role in determining whether we will “cook the books” or lead in line with our personal and organization’s core values.

Let’s talk about those photos of loved ones, or “close others,” as you call them. So you really do find evidence to suggest that their very presence on or near a desk can make workers less likely to act in a self-interested way? Can you describe how you got to that finding?

That’s right. The idea is that the work environment is generally one of economic exchange. Although that can be benign, being transactional can have unintended negative consequences. For example, prior research finds being in an “economic mindset” or simply taking a class in economics can lead to self-interested and often less compassionate and more unethical behavior. There is something about viewing work as a series of economic exchanges that can strip the moral aspects out of the work environment.

In our research, we find that when employees indicate having photos of close others up at work that their managers report that the employees are less likely to pad their expense accounts. In a series of experiments, we find that having a photo of a close other (as compared to a stranger, environmental landscape or building) reduces the extent to which they view work as simply an economic domain and helps align their behaviors with their core values such that they are less likely to lie for personal financial gain. We think that seeing photos of close others helps people think of their core values and protects them from the insidious effects of viewing everything as an economic exchange that is devoid of moral relevance.

Now, it’s no secret a lot of people are working from home because of the pandemic. While your research may not address it directly, can you extrapolate how such environmental or organizational influences could affect a worker who is remote?

The world of work is different now and will likely be irrevocably changed due to COVID-19. Companies such as Dropbox recently stated that they will be a completely virtual company going forward. It’s possible that seeing family members could have a similar effect as looking at photos of family members so working from home could help reduce misconduct. However, given the prevalence of homeschooling and economic stress in many homes, coupled with the lack of monitoring and direct accountability, my guess is that working from home during COVID-19 will lead to slightly worse behavior. Going forward, with more people working remotely, my sense is that employees’ behavior working from home will be similar to when they were in the office.

What else is important to know from your research-especially that which might surprise people-about ethics in business?

Most people tend to think that characteristics of a person drive whether someone is ethical or not. For example, one’s upbringing, religious values or even genetics must determine whether a person is a good apple or a bad egg. While those factors matter to some degree, my research and decades of science in social and organizational psychology tell us that we vastly underestimate the impact of our immediate environment on our behavior. Good people can do bad things in certain contexts, and the reverse is true as well.

Given people and organizations do not have control over how someone is raised nor their genes, the most fruitful approach to nudge behavior in an ethical direction is by changing the context-whether it be the physical context in terms of their workspace or the social context in terms of the organization’s ethical climate that leaders help shape.

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