Study: For business ethics training, accentuate the negative
  • rli
  • Blog post

Study: For business ethics training, accentuate the negative

People in charge of employee learning often incline toward the positive, i.e., they train folks in what TO do, not what to NOT do. And that’s usually a fine approach.

But, according to a study from Harvard Business School, when it comes to business ethics, the situation is reversed. It’s more effective, the study found, to emphasize what people shouldn’t do than what they should.

Two HBS professors set up a series of experiments using several dozen student participants. The aim was to compare behavioral results when people were given promotional messages about ethical standards vs. prevention-oriented messages. An example of the former might be “We strive consistently for honesty,” while an example of the latter would be “We guard vigilantly against dishonesty.”

Promotion vs. prevention

In one of the experiments, for instance, the participants were told they were taking part in a research project. Some of them were told the project was “conducted to advance the ideals and aspirations pursued by applied social science” — a message promoting ethical behavior. Others were told the project was “conducted with strict adherence to the standards and obligations required of applied social science” — a message aimed at preventing unethical behavior.

Then all the participants were administered word puzzles, and were expected to score themselves on the honor system. They were also told they’d be rewarded for high performance.

The result: Those who’d received an honesty-promoting message were more than three times as likely to cheat by overreporting their score as those who’d received a dishonesty-preventing message.

‘Thou shalt not’

The researchers pointed out, tongue only partly in cheek, that one of the oldest known guides to ethical conduct, the Ten Commandments, takes a mainly preventive slant toward bad behavior. Of the 10 injunctions to mankind, fully eight dictate “shalt nots” rather than the “shalls.”

Of course, none of this means to say that you shouldn’t try to train employees to approach their work honestly. But it does mean that a healthy dose of “Thou shalt not” may be useful in driving the message home and anchoring people’s behavior to social and/or organizational ethics.

This blog post is based on the following research study: Gino, F. & Margolis, J.D. Margolis (2011) Bringing ethics into focus: How regulatory focus and risk preferences
influence (Un)ethical behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 115, 145–156



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get a demo of all our training features

Connect with an expert for a one-on-one demonstration of how Rapid Learning can help develop your team.