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Horrible bosses and how to dodge them

Even if you believe only God can judge you, a new study suggests others might too — and ending emails with quotes about morality or displaying moral symbols in the workplace may influence a boss to behave more ethically.

According to a study conducted by Sreedhari Desai and Maryam Kouchaki, assistant professors in the Northwestern Kellogg School of Management and UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, respectively, office workers who wear morality on their sleeves are perceived by employers as more ethical, prompting more ethical behavior from bosses.

Desai said the inspiration for the study came from a student asking for help in an awkward situation. The student’s boss asked her to do something unethical, Desai said, and it made her think about ways a person could subtly signal their morality in the workplace.

It brought Desai back to when she was a student, receiving emails from a professor that included a biblical quote under the signature, she said. Even though she is not religious, she said she found herself assuming the professor was ethical because of that cue and it made her more mindful and respectful in correspondence with him.

“What’s happening is that we are non-consciously forming an opinion, a judgment about the individual displaying these cues,” she said.

The study 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.”

“The 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.

“There 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 pluralistic environment.

“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 underneath.

“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.

“We 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.

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