Office workers hanging or putting moral symbols in their office may find comfort in knowing that a supernatural being is protecting them. A new study suggests that these acts may actually ward off morally compromised bosses.

In a study published in the Academy of Management Journal, researchers have discovered that when employees exhibit moral symbols like a Buddha, virtuous quotes or religious images in their office space, it can help prevent their supervisors from asking them to do evil actions.

"It causes others in their vicinity to behave slightly more ethical," Sreedhari Desai, from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said.

"If the person happens to be your boss, they would be less likely to ask you to do something that's unethical," she added.

The researchers have conducted five experiments and one survey. A total of 148 students were asked to exchange emails with anonymous people named Pat and Sam. The group was divided into two, who received emails from either the two people. Pat sent a moral quote which says, "Better to fail with honor than succeed by fraud" while Sam didn't.

In the lab experiment, the researchers have asked the participants to decide whether they would send an honest or deceptive message to the other group. And they were told that they'll lose $18 if they sent an honest message and only $3 if they'll send a deceptive message.

Findings have showed that in Pat's group, among the members of the team who received a moral quote, about 46 percent chose to send a deceptive message compared to 64 percent in the other group. When they were asked who they would want to receive a deceptive message, 23 percent said they are willing to send it to Pat compared to 55 percent who chose to send it to Sam.

The researchers thought of applying their study in a real-life setting in India. They recruited 104 pairs of workers and their managers. They asked managers how often their partners displayed religious symbols like images of Buddha or Krishna on their desk.

The subordinates, on the other hand, were asked on how often their managers requested them to do something suspicious. They found that those who displayed moral symbols were less likely to be asked to do something bad or unethical.

"In sum, our findings show that followers can serve as a form of social influence to guide their leader's behavior and reduce the occurrence of unethical acts in the workplace," the researchers said in the study.

Photo: Thomas Wanhoff | Flickr

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