The Importance of ‘Don’t’ in Inducing Ethical Employee Behavior

In a new study, HBS professors Francesca Gino and Joshua D. Margolis look at two ways that companies can encourage ethical behavior: the promotion of good deeds or the prevention of bad deeds. It turns out that employees tend to act more ethically when focused on what not to do. That can be problematic in firms where success is commonly framed in terms of advancement of positive outcomes rather than prevention of bad ones. Key concepts include:
  • In general, there are two ways a company can encourage ethical conduct among its employees: either the promotion of good actions and outcomes or the prevention of bad ones.
  • Through several experiments, the professors found that inducing a prevention focus will lead to ethical behavior more than inducing a promotion focus.
  • In encouraging ethical behavior among employees, it behooves firms to consider focusing on preventing negative outcomes, not only in creating a code of ethics but also in setting goals and framing task directives.
by Carmen Nobel

In trying to encourage good moral conduct, it's common for a company to come up with a list of don'ts—wording policies such that they focus on unethical behavior employees should avoid rather than on ethical acts they should strive to achieve. Don't cheat. Don't lie. It's a tendency that dates back to the Ten Commandments, the vast majority (eight) of which dictate what thou shalt not do.

Meanwhile, in virtually every other aspect of business there is a focus on what to do. Do meet sales projections. Do outperform competitors. Do impress the boss by getting things done.

“The default tendency is for companies to frame goals in terms of promotion, and what we show here is that this might actually lead to cheating as a side effect.”

The dichotomy raises an important question: If employees are generally focused on the benefits of getting things done, will they be attentive to messages about what not to do? Harvard Business School professor Joshua D. Margolis draws a parallel to stage directions in a high-school play. "If you're always told when to enter, you might skip over the one time you're told to exit," he says.

Margolis and fellow HBS professor Francesca Gino explore the issue in a new research paper, "Bringing Ethics into Focus: How Regulatory Focus and Risk Preferences Influence (Un)ethical Behavior," in which they distinguish between two ways a company can encourage ethical conduct among its employees: either the promotion of being ethical or the prevention of being unethical. (The paper will be published in the academic journal, "Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.")

"Since the Enron scandal, there has been a lot of research across disciplines on why even good people do wrong," Margolis says. "But we have relatively little research to date that says, so, what do you do about it? That's the big game that we're hunting. What are some simple implementations or changes managers can introduce in their organizations to encourage good behavior?"

Promotion Or Prevention?

Through a series of experiments with college and graduate students, which are detailed in the paper, Gino and Margolis set out to induce individuals to focus on either promotion or prevention via a series of situational cues. They then studied whether the subconscious adoption of either a promotion or a prevention focus could affect an individual's behavior.

The researchers now contend that a person's focus, either promotion or prevention, can indeed influence his or her ethical behavior at any given time.

"I think the main message of the paper is that with situational cues, you can trigger one type of motivation versus the other," Gino says. "And because of this motivation, people end up cheating more or less. What we find is that the cues that induce a promotion focus—this idea of attaining high levels of performance—can lead to more cheating than prevention-focus types of framework or cues."

In one experiment, students had to come up with anagrams under the time pressure of 90 seconds per round, over a series of six rounds, with the understanding that they would be scoring themselves at the end of the test—and that they would be rewarded for high performance.

"In each round, participants were given a series of seven letters and asked to create as many words as possible," the paper explains. "The last series of letters was presented in a different order for each participant so that we could track who cheated and to what extent by comparing workbooks and answer sheets with participants' self-reported performance."

The students learned that they would each receive a Scrabble dictionary to check their work, after which they would fill out an answer sheet to report their performance. But before providing the dictionaries, the researchers distributed a pencil-and-paper maze to each student, in which the goal was to help a trapped cartoon mouse find its way out.

In some mazes, a picture of a piece of cheese sat outside the exit, next to a hole in the wall where the mouse could escape. This was meant to induce a promotion focus: Go get that reward! In other cases, in lieu of cheese, there was a menacing cartoon owl hovering above the maze, such that it behooved the mouse to reach the exit so as not to become bird food. That maze was meant to induce a prevention focus: Don't get killed!

Once they had completed the mazes, the students returned to the task of scoring themselves on the anagram test. They were told to pay themselves from the envelope on their desks according to their performance.

The results showed that the students who completed the cheese maze were far more likely to overstate their results, and to reward themselves accordingly, than those who completed the maze with the scary owl—82 percent (37 out of 45 participants) and 39 percent (16 out of 41 participants), respectively.

In a separate experiment, the researchers demonstrated that they could induce a promotion or prevention focus simply by phrasing the goals of the study in two different ways. Some students received promotion-based instructions that included the following statement, focusing on advancement: "This research project is being conducted to advance the ideals and aspirations pursued by applied social science." Others received a statement focusing on compliance: "Statement of Research Code of Conduct—This research project is being conducted with strict adherence to the standards and obligations required of applied social science."

Again, the students who were steered toward a promotion focus were more likely to cheat on the activities that followed. In other words, inducing a prevention focus may lead to more ethical behavior than inducing a promotion focus. Company executives may want to take note.

"The default tendency is for companies to frame goals in terms of promotion, and what we show here is that this might actually lead to cheating as a side effect," Gino says. "So the idea is to maybe revise those policies in terms of prevention so that they could trigger [ethical behavior]."

In yet another experiment, the researchers repeated the anagram tests, the mazes, and the monetary rewards with a different set of students, but then they added a wrinkle: After rewarding themselves from the envelopes on their desks, the students had the opportunity to donate some of their winnings to National Public Radio.

Tracking Moral And Immoral Actions

The results showed that a much larger number of the student participants donated money to NPR in the promotion focus (10 out of 33) than in the prevention focus (2 out of 33). In other words, while inducing a promotion focus seemed to induce unethical acts, it also led to higher levels of virtuous behaviors to make up for those unethical acts.

"So there is evidence for the fact that people like to feel that they're in balance when it comes to ethics," Gino says. "People are guided by their moral compass when facing ethical dilemmas. And they keep track of their moral and immoral actions. There's a sense that there's a moral scale inside of you, and you want to keep it balanced."

Eventually, Gino and Margolis plan to work within several companies to discover particular ways to incorporate a prevention focus into their bottom line, while still encouraging financial success. In the meantime, managers can be mindful of striking a balance between morals and money when setting goals and offering rewards.

"When you're a manager helping to set up the conditions in which people operate, be attuned to the messages you're sending," Margolis says. "If the message is, 'Be sure not to step over the line, but hit those numbers,' don't be shocked if people forget the first message. You need to be clear about penalties even as you are clear about goal setting. You want a healthy setting between those."

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
    • Aaron Pratt
    • Director of Marketing, Microboards Technology
    Wow. Remedial psychology: the effects of carrot and stick incentives. It's no wonder that business schools are losing their relevance...
    • Mark Calonico
    • Director, Sacramento County Office of Education
    Could study could be applied to public schools with regards to high stakes testing? With the pressure to achieve higher test results, it seems this study would be helpful for administrators to know that an emphasis on "don't" could help prevent the tendency to cheat in order to get higher test scores.
    • andrew campbell
    • director, ashridge business school
    This is another confirmation of the priming effect and how it can influence judgement. If this can work on students with a silly cartoon, think how much more powerful it is in banks, where a culture of "make money at all costs" pervades and the rewards are in the millions. The implications for ethics and ethics teaching is profound.
    • Abhishek Syal
    • Founder President, Act to Rise for Innovation in Special Education ( A R I S E )
    Nice exploratory research! Could we also focus on what demotivating factors the prevention focus may lead to?

    Since most of the public organizations run on that, with strict vigilance, it has lead to slowing down on processes and systems.

    In that light, how do you optimize the prevention and promotion focus?
    • Dr.K.Prabhakar
    • Professor, Velammal Engineering College
    The study is provides us inputs on how to communicate the ethic statements. However, present research is not specific about three variables,religion ethnicity and gender and economic status of respondents. These variables are likely to have an impact on how to view ethical statements; if they are Church going Christians and have internalized the Ten Commandments as the researcher have pointed out, my hypothesis is it is likely that they respond better to Don't. On the other hand if they are Hindus or Buddhists, where sinning is not the central issue, my hypothesis is they may respond to promotion focus. In the same vein, gender, ethnicity may also play a similar role.
    • Phil Clark
    • Clark & Associates
    Communications is the key to this puzzle. The last statement of the article really demonstrates how a simple word "but" impacts organizations. I have taught communications for years and have never failed to find that when the word "but" is used the mind negates everything before it. All that is really heard in that last statement is "hit those numbers." They will do that "any" way they can. Everything after the "but" tells you what the speaker really is thinking and where their values are. I have always said that the "but" separates the hogwash and smoke and mirrors from the reality.
    • Petr Kadlec
    • Member, Neuroleadership Institute
    The study presents a research of highly interesting and useful aspect of leadership. Nevertheless, I have trouble to get conclusions drawn of it in line with my knowledge and experience.
    1. The research puts ethics and business results one against the other. I believe it is not a standard practice anymore, the companies who promote this attitude get sooner or later lost in chaos and non-transparency as Enron did. Also formulation of the company values, I have done many times with my clients, was always in the form of do's and never dont's, as the negative form is always easier to circumvent ("what is not covered is permitted" is narrowing and less effective than "what is not covered is not tolerated").
    2. I find the researchers' conclusion rather unproven wishful thinking. Suffice to look at the experiment results from the point of view of the latest neuroscience. Priming effect mentioned by Andrew Campbell above is one scientifically verified aspect (works without any relation to our ethics). We know from neuroscientific research that subconscious effect of threat emotion induced by owl maze attention (yes, even such a subtle stimulus changes provably our decision making!) lasts much longer than positive cheese maze results. And while the positive "reward" emotion leads to more activity, tolerance and willingness to take a risk (ie.accept the results of the anagram test), the negative "danger" emotion has a provable effect on stepping back, being very conservative in one's statements, careful in behavior and leads to strong risk avoidance (rather not to validate some of the anagrams). Again regardless the wishful ethics background of the self-assessment
    3. Also the conclusion concerning the desired balance of ethical dilemmas in the last article is in my view overstated. The group with promotional cheese focus, gained higher score and it was easier for them to share the reward with charity. The other group, with low scores and under influence of danger emotion impacts was much more careful to share, not willing to give up part of the little they earned.
    My guess is, that the research was primary focused on social aspects and interpreted by sociologists without taking into account proven limitations implied by our brain as a core vehicle of our (not only) social behavior, thinking and emotions (including compassion and other ethical aspects).
    • Anonymous
    The balance between promotion and preventive mode has been the understanding that we have encouraged. In fact as per the 'Law of Attraction' I believe that promotion and recognition/ rewards make you think positive (thinking that I have it in me and I am ethical)and as such in this case encourage you to be ethical.

    It will be good to look at the cultural variations in the research and consider these factors.
    • Anonymous
    Interesting findings. Can't help feeling that two different concepts might be being blended here and would benefit from being unpicked. The first is the language of stating your devolved objectives to your team. In most cases in my experience people respond better to a positive request ie beat this target, rather than don't fail this target which is seen as more threatening and confrontational. The second is the incentives or penalties associated with different outcomes. On that one it appears that incentives tend to lead to more cheating. For example if you had an incentivised attendance policy where you rewarded people with a bonus for attending work every day, then it doesn't matter whether you say "Don't go sick" or "Try to work every day you can", it is the incentive that is likely to lead to people saying they were working so they are eligible for the bonus rather than the phrasing of the targetry. A recent university experiment on banker behaviour showed greater performance where they were threatened with 'fines' for not achieving performance targets rather than 'bonuses' for achieving them.
    • Fred Kaplan
    This is as simple as what children are taught here in the US. If your good you get presents at Christmas time if not you get coal. If your good you go to heaven, if not hell. But what it does not reveal is peoples rational of good and bad. Or why some people will leave an organization because it compromises their ethics while others change their ethics to fit in with the culture.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Limited Private Limited
    The Ten Commandments exhort us not to undertake unethical actions. So do many scriptures. However,if we only say what must not be done, we shall miss the more important ' what to do '. And, emphasising the 'Don't ' will lead one to prefer not to do an action falling in the domain which could be interpreted both as 'Do' and 'Don't' due to thin line of distinction. In professional field, ethics no doubt matter a lot but not doing what is perceived (by the individual based on his own interpretation and psyche) risky from ethical point of view ( even though it may not be so) would thwart performance.
    Let's always list out do's as well as don'ts laying equal emphasis on both aspects. In India, such a listing for Directors on company boards of larger companies has already been included in the Voluntary Guidelines on Corporate Governance and this would be a good practice once these instructions are followed mandatorily by all.
    • Santosh P Bhosale
    • Tax consultants
    Articles on the research of ethical behaviour of the employee is very excellent.
    It is true fact the most companies focus on the what not to do? which create the negative business environment among the organisation leads to productivity, excellency, growth, creativity of both employee and company.

    • Sudheer Thaakur
    • Professor, BITS, Pilani, India
    Makes eminent sense. Afterall ethics is a 'conformance' issue and not a 'performance' issue.
    High competence requiires strong character to shield it from corrosion from 'hubris' and a snese of being beyond rules which are for ordinary mortals and not high performing executives. Similarly low competence requires the shield of strong character to resist the temptation to compensate for competence by bending and breaking rules and more so if chances of being found out and also punished are low. Don't look far. Look at the political class in India.
    Therfore 'DON'T' are more effective because you acn fit those into a mangeable list and enforce. You can not create a list of DOs.
    • John Dollay Adigizey
    • CEO, First Trinity Integrated Services Limited, Jos, Nigeria
    Inducing Ethical Employee Behavior is not an option. This study has provided us with inputs on how to communicate the ethical issues to employees. Nevertheless, other parameters must be researched upon by the authors - those that may include things like culture, position/status in organisation, religion,ethnicity, etc. Also, it must be made clear that the psychology of an employee is very easy to manipulate with rewards and priases - promotion and upgradement. What will happen to a management system that lacks such 'motivational inputs'?. In other words, the control of 'DON'TS' must be weighed equally with that of 'DOS', otherwise, some employees may become completely robotic in their loyalty and this will still manifest in lying and cheating, thereby creating bigger risk of unethical behaviours.
    • Col Surendra Arya
    • Chief Mentor, Perspectives Unlimited
    What works and what does not work, depends on supposed mindset of people in general! In the Corp world, more and more people are materialistically inclined than any other organization, a typical subset of an ongoing human conflict within, profit or service? People with profit/ material mindset tend to produce better results with fear of losing or even coercion (Negative incentives).

    Very many people with a positive mindset will do much better with positive incentives, like enlightenment on what to do for betterment of organization......the society in general.

    We have a choice, to live in positivity or negativity!
    • Paul Nicholas
    • Director, Soul-Chaplain Consultancy
    This is fascinating! Can the proposal that "employees tend to act more ethically when focused on what not to do" be related to any fundamental decision-making process in our brain?

    So much of our decision making seems to derive from a kind of Darwinian selection - that is, in considering the options open to us the "least fitted" or negative options are usually deselected, with the process working towards the last remaining option becoming the selected or "chosen" one.

    Doesn't this also mean that "Thou shalt not" may be less ambiguous and more readily processed than "Thou shalt"?
    • Illysa
    • Managing Principle, Strategy and Training Partners,LLC
    So . . . how do we know if we're only "in balance" -- ensuring that for every unethical act, we engage in a higher moral act- - or if we are acting ethically all the time?

    I'd like to think I'm acting ethically all the time, yet based on this and other research you've presented over the past few years, I'm wondering how I can ensure I'm not so easily swayed by wording, pictures, and the people around me.
    • Luiz Gaziri
    • Sales Manager
    Very interesting article. I believe that science will keep teaching us how wrong our decision making process is. Leaders should always keep an eye on research like this one.