By Liz Warren-Pederson
Can ethics violation reporting trends be predicted?
It’s just one of the questions management professors Lisa Ordóñez (Levine Faculty Fellow) and Stephen Gilliland (department head and director of the Center for Leadership Ethics), aim to answer with support from the National Science Foundation and EthicsPoint. The latter, one of the largest providers of ethics hotline services in the country and a founding sponsor of the Center, is making ten years’ worth of anonymous reporting data available for study to Ordóñez, Gilliland, and doctoral student David Welsh. The work is part of a larger research agenda by the Center for Leadership Ethics at the Eller College.
“We will be looking at trends. For example, did reports of financial violations peak after the Enron scandal?” Ordóñez explained. “Ultimately, we want to develop an ethics index to use as an indicator of change in the ethical climate of business.”
The project is a natural extension of Ordóñez’s work in decision making. In a previous paper, she demonstrated through lab experiments the dark side of goal setting: the closer participants got to achieving a set goal, the more likely they were to exaggerate their results. The paper intrigued her colleagues Maurice Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania, Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University, and Max Bazerman of the Harvard Business School.
“We ended up working together on a paper that got a lot of attention,” she said. “There is no question that challenging goals can boost on-the-job performance, but we argued that goal-setting has become over-prescribed.”
Enter grad student Welsh. He came to Ordóñez and expressed interest in her results, but wondered if they could actually influence a subject’s ethical behavior through subconscious priming during a lab test. “The idea was to find ways to get people to stop behaving unethically,” she said.
Ordóñez and Welsh devised an experiment involving three sets of scrambled sentences. Once unscrambled by the subjects, one set revealed sentences with an ethical focus, one set with an unethical focus, and one set with a neutral focus. The subjects then participated in a simple math-based test in which some of the participants were given a goal, and some not.
“The people who had a goal were still more likely to cheat,” Ordóñez said, “but the unethical priming and the ethical priming had the same effect of achieving less cheating.” She and Welsh find that even relatively subtle primes that indirectly get people thinking about ethical issues are enough to significantly decrease cheating behavior.
This work, Ordóñez hopes, will shed light on how organizations can influence ethical behavior in employees. “Look at the Karl Eller quote we have painted on the wall in Berger auditorium [“Let absolute integrity be the compass that guides you.”],” she said. “Our research suggests that approach works.”
“The bottom line in this work is that organizations need to be cautious in goal-setting,” Ordóñez continued. “Goal setting leads an individual’s focus to performance instead of ethics, and it can become very easy to rationalize bad behavior.”