The benefits of spotlighting ethical exemplars can be greater than one might assume.

Organizations, to their detriment, often overlook opportunities to spotlight exemplary behavior—ethical behavior in particular. Increasingly remote workforces, with limited non-essential communication, likely worsen the situation. And the situation as it stands isn’t that great. Most of the time, the focus of employee recognition is not on ethics but on metrics related to the bottom line, or subjective perceptions of overall performance. This is useful for productivity, but rife with problems such as hyperfocus on numbers or social/managerial approval. The fact that employees are aware of being evaluated can also have a negative impact when they go unselected for recognition.

It should come as no surprise that, for exemplary behavior to improve ethical culture, organizations should spotlight workers behaving ethically. Leadership at many companies may communicate that certain ethical values are important—like empowering diverse employees, and environmental sustainability—but when employees actually manifest these values in concrete actions, does anyone notice? Do other employees see that this behavior is not only encouraged, but meaningfully rewarded?

Moral champions are the most common and useful type of exemplar found in business.

For exemplars to be influential, their behavior should be both relevant and attainable; observers of desirable behavior are most influenced when they feel that the person behaving ethically is significantly similar to themselves. Peers are influential in moral decision making, and influence not only decisions but the way those decisions are made. This may not be exclusive to peer influence, but does underscore that the influence is more than superficial.  

It’s far from groundbreaking to say that we can increase ethical behavior by praising it, and by selecting relatable exemplars as role models. Identifying and visibly praising/rewarding ethical behavior within the organization is ideal. When this isn’t possible due to privacy concerns, lack of opportunity, or other reasons, additional strategies are needed. The value of highly visible exemplary behavior suggests that frequent recognition is worth the effort, but few organizations are fully realizing the potential boon. 

In his 1986 paper “The discovery of excellence: The assets of exemplars in business ethics,” Paul deVries observed that “people generally reason by story, myth, fruitful analogy, and parable.” At the center of all of these are almost always a human role model, whether negative or positive. The good ones become role models and the bad ones serve as cautionary tales. Beyond that, we tend to trust our own admiration, as a shortcut to knowing what is ethical behavior. 

It is harder to know what it means to be ethical than it is to merely identify what values and behavior we deem imitable in others and copy them. When asked what guides someone’s ethical behavior, they often answer with a quote from a famous person they admire (for Theranos whistle-blower Erika Cheung, it was one from Viktor Frankl), or simply a statement that they use that person as their template. It may be Albert Camus, or Oprah Winfrey, but the personal nature of this admiration is rarely questioned, and has a very real impact on ethical cognition and behavior. 

Exemplars should also teach a set of values or preferred behaviors, more so than just improving company image. When New York Times writer Jayson Blair plagiarized multiple high-profile articles, it was likely overlooked because the organization felt it was ethical in some permanent way with “widespread belief within the corporation that such unethical behavior ‘couldn’t happen here.’” Acculturation to a high moral self-perception —a sense that “we are The New York Times, after all”—generated a distorted mental model, an ethical blind spot that hid Blair’s dishonest behavior from view. Despite internal concerns about the writer, nobody spoke up about them, perhaps because there were no role models demonstrating how to ensure ongoing journalistic integrity. 

How do exemplars influence ethical behavior? Some researchers believe that role models are more important than organizational rewards/punishments, or established rules, for guiding virtuous behavior. Role models can show what a moral person looks like, motivating people to attain the virtues of that person, so that they can think of themselves as moral as well, a reward more powerful than what an organization can offer as incentive. Paul deVries detailed four ways in which ethical exemplars influence:

  • First, exemplars facilitate impartial agreement where agreement on detailed moral rules eludes us. 
  • Second, exemplars uniquely facilitate, for the purposes of training and decision making, the balanced integration of diverse sets of values. 
  • Third, the use of exemplars appropriately cultivates personal judgment, making detailed moral roles useful in exceptional cases only. 
  • Fourth, exemplars provide the flexibility necessary for making moral decisions within the continued flux of responsible business life.

The benefits of spotlighting ethical exemplars can be greater than one might assume. Ethical Systems recently worked with Novartis, one of the leading pharmaceutical organizations, to help them understand the enablers and derailers of speak-up culture. In January, Novartis designed and rolled-out a unique comprehensive global ethics survey to its 150,000-strong workforce. In collaboration with their Behavioral & Data Science team in Ethics, Risk & Compliance, we reviewed aggregate and anonymized perception survey data to better understand how to promote employee speak-up behavior. Through this work, it was discovered that observing exemplary behavior in the workplace was a strong predictor of speaking up about unethical behavior. Of particular importance was the ratio, or balance, of behaviors employees observed. When employees observed overwhelmingly unethical behaviors at work, they were much less likely to speak up than when they also saw a fair amount of exemplary behavior.

“The team and I were really amazed by those findings,” Antoine Ferrère, who leads the in-house team of behavioral & data scientists, told me. “We had this intuition that it wasn’t just whether associates were perceiving unethical behaviors or exemplary ethical behaviors that would impact how they felt about speaking-up. The fact that the ratio of the two is a better predictor than one or the other is very much in line with what we know from our behaviors: context matters.” In general, he said, his team found that the survey largely confirmed a number of insights from the behavioral sciences. “For us as a science-based organization,” he said, “it’s always great to promote collaboration between the private section and academia. I believe we need more of those bridges and it shows that companies have a lot to gain to keep a constant flow of external, recognized expertise as they build their in-house social science capabilities.”


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While precise mechanisms of action could not be determined, it appeared that seeing exemplary behaviors improved opinions of the company and the perceived efficacy/value in making the effort to speak up. Among veteran employees, this ratio (top vs. bottom quartile) predicted a doubling of speaking up about unethical behavior via appropriate internal channels. Even when controlling for the quantity of unethical and exemplary behavior observed, the ratio was still highly predictive of speaking up. 

Who are the correct people to spotlight as exemplars? Duane Windsor provides useful insights, describing moral business exemplars as either heroes (protect life in extreme conditions), saints (as morally worthy as one can be), or champions (advocate moral values despite obstacles). Moral champions are the most common and useful type of exemplar found in business. The concept of a moral champion can act as a template for selecting exemplars; heroes and saints are not as useful as exemplars because their behavior may be extreme and unreasonable to emulate, and they occur only in rare circumstances. These lofty examples can give employees lower moral self-efficacy, or a feeling that ethical championing is reserved for extraordinary people.  

A sense for what makes a good exemplar can come from employees themselves. When asked who is a good example, employees will point to colleagues within the same organization, people in other organizations, family members, and famous figures. Beyond the ideal of a relevant and relatable business exemplar, famous paragons of virtue may be the next best thing. While these examples may not be as attainable, an organization can still clearly express the values they hold in high esteem this way. Through modeling of character, paragons can help people envision aspirational versions of themselves. By using business examples (i.e. famous business people), they can also be quite relevant. Knowing how influential these larger-than-life personalities can be, the organization has an opportunity to present ethical business leaders and their virtues, and they may be adopted as long-term role models in place of, or in addition to, those people already imitate. 

When left to our own devices about judging our coworkers and managers, we are likely to judge them to be unethical, or less ethical than they truly are, by default. So positive exemplars serve the purpose of improving perceptions of the company and coworkers, by combatting our natural tendency with evidence that individuals in the organization are ethical. It can also change what we believe to be the ethical norms that surround us, to which we compare ourselves. A better opinion of others may also mean more ethical behavior for ourselves as we strive to match our peers. 

Further, spotlighting exemplary behavior is necessary because most individuals do not place much importance on appearing moral at work. We are more likely to make efforts to appear competent and clever, leaving a void in the workplace where morality is hidden rather than in the open. This happens in part because we all assume ourselves to be moral (even when behavior belies this belief), but feel we need to prove our competence. And business environments are the ones that most amplify competence as a desirable trait, and where personal beliefs are discouraged, suppressing public displays of moral traits. 

Managers, who are default role models and potential exemplars, may benefit from learning that “while communicating one’s moral standards may not be necessary for the manager’s own moral agency, it enables the manager’s subordinates to realize that there are community moral standards that the manager endorses, and to understand what those moral standards are.” Leaders can also enhance the moral self-efficacy of employees by displaying moral humility, which suggests openness and uncertainty, an invitation for others to have an impact on ethics questions. 

Under normal conditions, awareness of ethics in the organization is limited in both directions, under-perceived and under-expressed. Organizations can put exemplars on a pedestal and improve this considerably. The expression of moral/ethical information can also be encouraged as a cultural value and job competency throughout the workforce, creating exemplars from those who already surround employees. For more on how morals and ethics transmit within an organization, see my previous article on this topic.

Brian Harward is a research scientist at Ethical Systems.


Suggested Actions for Successful Exemplar Spotlighting:

  • Spotlight moral exemplars of different types, including highly attainable behaviors from peers/colleagues, as well as inspirational paragons.
  • Match the content of exemplar behavior to desired ethical outcomes. Clear examples of customer-first orientation, environmentally responsible decision-making, support of diversity, etc. as needed. 
  • Train leaders to be more morally expressive, and in particular to display moral humility. They are default exemplars and role models.  
  • Encourage all employees to participate in ethical discussions such that exemplars could emerge in any role and level of the organization. 
  • Improve ethical culture toward acceptance of a variety of ethical/moral values, and increased employee voice. 
  • Create opportunities and expectations around the sharing of ethical and moral information, such as roundtables, Q&As, or nomination of ethical exemplars.
  • Communicate exemplary behavior through multiple channels to improve visibility.  
  • Collect data via surveys, facilitate discussions, run experiments, or work with experts at Ethical Systems to design and implement professional research interventions for your organization.