Legal Ambiguity and Organizational Noncompliance

The principal investigator of this project is Yuval Feldman. The focus of this research is to understand the psychological processes that mediate and moderate the effect of ambiguity in law on rule-following behaviors of individuals in organizations. Although recent research suggests that when people face ambiguity, they may be more likely to rely on their own self-interest to guide their behavior, either deliberately or unknowingly, this project will demonstrate that in an organizational context, the picture is more complex. While it is true that research in areas such as moral disengagement, dishonesty, and self-serving biases suggest that ambiguity will undermine rule-following behavior, there are other theoretical paradigms which are clearly related to the specificity of law, such as the effect of incentives, enforcement (e.g. commodification, crowding out) and the non-instrumental aspects of law (e.g. legitimacy, expressive, intrinsic motivation) that need to be accounted for when attempting to design the optimal specificity of laws that governs the behavior of individuals in organizations.

Given the number of factors involved in this research project, a series of studies using complementary methods (lab/experimental survey and lab experimentation) will be conducted. In the lab context, I plan to focus on understanding the automatic processes involved in giving sense to ambiguous clauses, using methods such as the IAT (Implicit Attitudes Testing) and cognitive loading. In addition, I will attempt to compare the different decision rules people use when asked to interpret ambiguous laws (e.g. self-interest, social norms, morality, fairness, and efficiency). More refined tests could be performed as well for each of these factors (e.g. financial, self- interest, personal, avoiding punishment by boss).

The second method will focus on the importance of the legal and organizational context and will, therefore, be based on an experimental survey of more diverse samples. In this stage of the research, the focus will be on studying variation in interpretation of identical legal clauses, across sectors, industries, legal contexts, and demographics. Examples for legal clauses measured include: 1) What would be considered business-related expenses in a tax context? 2) What would be considered a conflict of interest in an administrative law context? 3) What is a legitimate personal use of organizational means? Lastly, in the third method of web-experimentation, participants will be required to perform various assignments online, manipulating the clarity of legal guidance and, consequently, how incentives will be provided.

While legal compliance and ethical behavior in organizations are different concepts, the inter-relation between them is very important to understanding why there is misconduct in organizations. The optimal specificity of law is highly relevant to illustrating how these two concepts interact in an organizational context. The project will show that it is too simplistic to simply argue that ambiguous laws facilitate corruption. A law that is too detailed and specific may not only be too costly to enact but it may also carry inadvertent effects on people's behavior. Therefore, the normative part of the paper will attempt to model the optimal clarity of law and will attempt to propose taxonomy of legal and organizational contexts where different levels of legal ambiguity are desirable. Such taxonomy will combine the different psychological processes triggered by ambiguity accumulated in the experimental part of the project. Derived from the survey-based part of the project, the proposed taxonomy will identify the areas where ambiguity is more likely to facilitate noncompliance and corruption. Ideally the project could help legal policy makers to design laws whose impact on employees in organization will prevent opportunism without crowding out employees' internal motivation. The implications of optimizing legal ambiguity dealt with in the body of literature on expressive law, and differentiated regulation will be explored as well.