tested how effective symbols — like quotes on morality or having a
picture of Jesus, Krishna or Buddha at an employee’s desk — are in
portraying moral character, sometimes preventing employers from making immoral requests.
“Judging somebody’s moral
character as a consequence of the cues they are displaying causes us to
be reluctant to ask them to do something unethical,” she said.
Desai said there is a lot of focus on “top-down” influence in the workplace, but this study showed the power of “bottom-up.”
idea is that an ethical culture comes from the top,” she said. “For the
most part, people have neglected the role, if any, that lower level
employees can play.”
Lenny Lowe, a graduate student in the UNC department of
religious studies, said average people are the ones who give and change the meaning of symbols,
regardless of authoritative control.
He said an example is the American flag, treatment of which is governed by ceremonial rules down to the way it's folded.
will be people who will take it and burn it, and they do it explicitly
engaging the symbol in trying to change its valence, trying to change
its power or influence,” he said.
The context that symbols are in can make things messy, he said, and one person's moral symbol may mean something different to another person.
According to the study, the impact of moral symbols on the interaction between boss and employee is the same regardless of any differences between employer's and employee's personal beliefs — signaled by the religious symbols displayed in the workplace.
But Lowe said things might not work as well in a more
“Suppose the study is done in an office
setting in Alabama, with explicit symbols of Islam on someone’s desk. In
that case, there’s not a shared sense of what those symbols mean,
necessarily,” he said.
Rabbi Ariel Naveh of UNC Hillel said he
thinks backlash against people who display their allegiance to certain
faiths stems from a lack of exposure.
He said the increased
awareness of mindfulness gained from being around moral symbols in the
workplace accomplishes something similar to the Jewish practice of
putting up a mezuzah.
“You put a mezuzah on the doorpost of your
home to create a space, a holy space and to make sure that space is set
apart from other spaces — not higher or better or above other spaces, but
to set apart, to make different,” he said.
Harvard Business School is considering the study's findings as it
tries to build character in its students after several ethical scandals
involving alumni, Desai said.
On their walls now hangs modern artwork, she
said, including a sketch of Ghandi with one of his famously moral quotes
“They made it hard to miss,” she said.
She said she is partnering with a company, Gapingvoid, which focuses on creating motivational artwork for companies.
are going to see, hopefully, that artwork inspires people to be more
ethical and can have (an impact) on organizations where it is
displayed,” she said.
She recently received an email someone from Durham Academy, a Durham-based high school, with moral
quotes on the bottom. She said he had read about her study and gave the technique a try to
deal with rude interactions.
She said that he told her people began to be kinder and more respectful to him after he started using the quotes.
“Let’s make the world better one quote at a time or something," she said.