How to Protect Yourself from an Unethical Boss
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Organizations Leadership Feb 1, 2016

How to Protect Yourself from an Unethical Boss

To ward off immoral requests, take a lesson from vampire lore.

A vampire unethical boss tries to request unethical behavior from an employee.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Sreedhari Desai

Maryam Kouchaki

Do you ever feel pressured to compromise your ethics at work? Maybe your boss asks you to lie and say he is at a meeting when he really went golfing, or a supervisor asks you to turn a blind eye when some petty cash goes missing?

You are not alone: nearly 10 percent of workers reported feeling this way in a 2013 Ethics Resource Center survey.

The Kellogg School’s Maryam Kouchaki wants to help workers feel less powerless in these situations—not by coming up with the perfect way to reject unethical requests, but by preventing them in the first place.

Her new research shows that displaying a “moral symbol,” such as a religious icon, a poster of a spiritual figure like Gandhi, or an ethically relevant quotation, can serve as a kind of amulet against corruption in the workplace. It works both by stimulating moral awareness in others and by creating the perception that the displayer possesses a high moral character.

“The idea is that being authentically moral and being proud of that and showing that can have positive consequences,” says Kouchaki, an assistant professor of management and organizations.

A “Necklace of Garlic” to Ward Off an Unethical Boss?

This is the same reasoning used by medieval villagers who, rather than passively waiting for Dracula to swoop down on leathery wings, adorned themselves with magical totems to ward off vampires.

“We keep hearing stories of people saying that they had to do unethical things to keep their job, because they were asked to do them, and they felt they couldn’t say no.”

But while no one has yet produced a peer-reviewed paper on the protective efficacy of crucifixes and holy water, Kouchaki and Sreedhari Desai at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School have conducted six studies to test their hypothesis. They published the results in a new paper in Academy of Management Journal, “Moral Symbols: A Necklace of Garlic Against Unethical Requests.”

“We keep hearing stories of people saying that they had to do unethical things to keep their job, because they were asked to do them, and they felt they couldn’t say no,” Kouchaki says. “We wanted to figure out if there is a way that someone could say no in a subtle but effective way to prevent such difficult situations in the first place.”

When Money and Morality Collide

In one of the paper’s studies, 148 college students were asked to play a game with prize money at stake. Each participant was told that he or she would oversee two other teammates, “Pat” and “Sam.” (In reality, Pat and Sam were fictitious.) Then participants were shown emails in which their teammates introduced themselves. For some participants, Pat’s introductory email contained a morally themed quotation; for others, it did not. Sam’s email contained no quotation at all.

The quotation—“Better to fail with honor than succeed by fraud”—was carefully chosen to seem both low-key and appropriate to a business setting, Kouchaki says. “It isn’t super virtuous, because we didn’t want the person to inspire contempt in others by coming off as holier-than-thou, and because we wanted it to seem realistic and natural.”

In the game, participants had to decide whether a teammate would send an honest message or a deceptive message to another team—as well as which teammate would send it. The honest message, participants were told, would likely result in their team losing $18 of their earnings, while the deceptive message would likely result in their team losing only $3. In both cases, the subordinate sending the message would not know whether it was deceptive or not.

Sixty-four percent of participants who were not exposed to the ethical quotation opted to send the deceptive message, while only 46 percent of those who saw the ethical quotation did so.

Not only that, but those who saw the ethical quotation and still decided to send the deceptive message were more likely to choose Sam (whose email included no quotation) as the messenger. A subsequent experiment found similar protective effects for avatars when they wore t-shirts with the names of web sites (, for example) printed on them.

Meaning the necklace of garlic worked.

“We have a tendency to avoid making things dirty that are clean,” Kouchaki says, pointing to anthropological and psychological literature that suggests people find it innately immoral to defile objects or beings perceived as pure. The study participants may have avoided asking the subordinate they perceived as moral to complete an immoral task because doing so would have been doubly immoral.

Or, she points out, it may simply be that seeing a moral symbol consciously or unconsciously increases moral awareness in the viewer.

Taking It to the Real World

To test these findings in the field, Kouchaki and Desai conducted a survey of 104 superior–subordinate pairs from a variety of organizations in India, where religious icons are frequently displayed at work. The survey asked the superiors about their subordinate’s work performance, relationship with the superior, tendency to display moral symbols, and moral character. Meanwhile, subordinates were asked how often their superiors gave them unethical directives, as well as how often their superiors stopped by their desks.

The authors found that subordinates who displayed moral symbols were more likely to be considered by their supervisors to have high moral character and less likely to have been asked to compromise their moral standards at work. Not only that, but “we show no potential backlash and no difference in performance ratings,” Kouchaki says.

In other words, displaying moral symbols did not appear to negatively affect the superior’s feelings about the subordinate. Likewise, when participants in the email experiment were later asked whether they thought the emails from Sam and Pat had affected their decision to pass along ethical or unethical messages, none of the participants said that the emails had been a factor.

This is no small matter. The Ethics Resource Center survey found that 21 percent of employees who reported misconduct said they experienced retaliation.

And just how broadly protective is that crucifix or Ghandi poster? Kouchaki is quick to note that this research focuses primarily on unethical behaviors related to money. More work is needed to determine whether moral symbols can protect against other types of corruption, such as racial discrimination or sexual harassment. Her hunch is that they would.

“There isn’t enough research about how people who don’t have power can make a difference,” Kouchaki says. “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.”

About the Writer
Anne Ford is a writer in Evanston, Illinois.
About the Research

Desai, Sreedhari, and Maryam Kouchaki. 2015. “Moral Symbols: A Necklace of Garlic Against Unethical Requests.” Academy of Management Journal. In press.

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