Maryam Kouchaki, Yuval Feldman, Elizabeth Doty — Influencing Ethical Behavior in the Workplace

The first Lab seminar of the spring semester convened on February 12, 2014, and was led by Edmond J. Safra Lab Fellows, Maryam Kouchaki, Yuval Feldman, and Elizabeth Doty. Titled, "Influencing Ethical Behavior in the Workplace," and "Revealing and Addressing Commitment Drift in Business," their presentations provided a comprehensive overview of their collaborative efforts to analyze and improve professional codes of conduct, as well as understand how businesses make and keep promises in the workplace. Also contributing to this research, but not in attendance, is Francesca Gino, Professor of Business Administration in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit at Harvard Business School. Though their research is preliminary, Kouchaki, Feldman, and Doty shared significant insights from empirical studies and textual analysis they have undertaken which demonstrates the impact language in ethical codes of conduct has in influencing and regulating employees' behavior in the workplace.

Feldman and Kouchaki began the Lab seminar by discussing why it is so critical to understand how codes of conduct come to be articulated by organizations and interpreted by employees. Explaining to the group that employees are more likely to read ethical codes of conduct than laws and regulations, and that there is an apparent dearth of research examining such codes, Feldman stressed the importance of analyzing the variation and salience of existing codes in order to design better ethical codes. Further, by creating awareness of psychological processes, such as that of bounded ethicality, defined as the systematic and predictable way in which humans can act unethically beyond their own awareness, institutions can strive to design better codes of conduct, which reduce wrongdoing. Feldman and Kouchaki then presented methods they have developed for discerning variance in the language of codes of conduct used by different organizations. In addition to this work, they explained how by running experimental Mechanical Turk studies that expose people to a variety of situations in which intuitions about what is ethically forbidden is ambiguous, they have begun to measure the effectiveness of codes of conduct. In particular, the research has addressed issues, such as should organizations use the word "we" or "employee" in codes of conduct? Further, what is most effective: codes of conduct that communicate a high level of trust in their employees to exercise discretion at their own will ("High Trust"), or a code that instills more oversight and dependence on consulting with compliance officers ("Low Trust"). Though the team's research is ongoing, preliminary findings from the Mechanical Turk studies reveal more positive outcomes associated with corporate codes of conduct that communicate "High Trust" in their employees. At this point in the discussion, one participant of the Lab voiced concern over whether employees even bother to read codes of conduct. Feldman acknowledged this as a legitimate concern, and explained that prioritizing the amount of information communicated in codes of conduct is something the research will address.

Continuing on with the presentation, Elizabeth Doty presented research on commitment drift in corporate settings. Specifically, she discussed the development of an employee survey and commitment drift scorecard pilot program, which she has facilitated at an anonymous fortune 500 company. She then highlighted the ways in which these tools and methods can help organizations recognize and address commitment drift and wrongdoing. Much of her presentation centered on the significance of promises made within organizations, as keeping promises is generally held as an intuitive baseline for integrity. Her perspective is that many business professionals value keeping promises and there are many business payoffs from keeping promises, but, in practice, business commitments frequently "drift". In her pilot study, she is experimenting with whether a scorecard/survey process creates awareness, motivation and improvement in making and keeping promises, and beginning a qualitative study to better understand the challenges and enablers of keeping organizational commitments. In recounting the case study, some participants reminded us of the potential for enormous gaps between espoused commitments and actual behavior. One of the most important questions during the discussion was whether systematically creating the conditions for poor coordination counted as incompetence or institutional corruption.

Two themes that ran through the entire presentation were the challenges of implementation and limited attention. So much is dependent on what actual leaders say and do in the moment, which influence the salience of structures such as codes of conduct. And often, important message regarding commitments, ethics, etc are swamped by other messages, leading to overload or dilution.

In summary, the Lab seminar provided an intriguing starting point for the semester, as institutional corruption was discussed in the context of organizational and institutional ethics. Finally, participants of the Lab were eager to discuss how subtle social and environmental cues can affect one's moral compass.

-Summary composed by Joseph Hollow