Will Working at Home Make Us More Ethical?

One finds far less attention to the importance of truthfulness in codes of conduct, and other C&E communications, than one would expect.

Research I reported on several years ago suggests working from home could make a positive ethical difference.

In a 2012 paper, “Truth Telling: A Representative Assessment,” Johannes Abeler, Anke Becker and Armin Falk report on the results of two studies in Germany concerning lying and cheating. They suggest that individuals who are given an opportunity and motive to be dishonest are unlikely to do so if the wrongdoing would take place in their home. That is, individuals were called in their homes and asked to flip a coin—with the understanding that if they reported tails they would be paid a certain amount of money but they would get nothing if they reported heads. In one version of the experiment, 56 percent reported heads, a number which presumably reflects a near zero amount of cheating (and maybe underreporting of the profit-maximizing result). The results of a second version were essentially indistinguishable from the first.

What is noteworthy here is that earlier studies on honesty that were conducted in laboratories showed a substantially higher percentage of cheating. Thus, comparing those results to the new ones suggests that context may have a significant impact on truth telling—and perhaps other forms of ethical conduct. This is consistent in a broad way with many other behavioral studies showing how surprisingly malleable we are with respect to ethical conduct.

But can this information be used to promote compliance and ethics in the workplace, or is it interesting but not especially helpful? I expect that C&E training and other communications could evoke the sense of home that seems to engender honesty, although obviously one would need to take care not to go overboard with such an approach. (Indeed, some training I developed years ago sought to draw this connection,  and I think it was well received.)

Moreover, building on the apparently well understood need for being truthful at home may be especially important given the relatively tepid endorsement of truthfulness in the workplace that one finds in many companies. And this includes some with otherwise strong C&E programs. From what I’ve seen over more than 20 years in the field, one finds far less attention to the importance of truthfulness in codes of conduct, and other C&E communications, than one would expect. This shortfall may reflect the commonly held view that some degree of “bluffing” is appropriate in business, as noted in a famous article in Harvard Business Review.

The benefit of evoking a “domestic” sensibility regarding ethics is that, whatever the apparent logic of the bluffing perspective might be in the business realm (from my perspective it was never persuasive), on a gut level we are far less likely to accept it in our home lives. There, its unsustainability is self-evident to the point of being intuitive (particularly so for parents, but presumably for any type of family member). Whereas one might be aware of successful business careers built on truth-bending, it is simply impossible to imagine a healthy family life resting on such a foundation. I believe this is something that we not only understand intellectually but feel emotionally.

Of course, C&E professionals can also draw on some very good data showing that in business honesty really is the best policy, such as this 2010 study by the Corporate Executive Board. Appealing to one’s colleagues with a direct case should always be the principal approach to promoting business ethics. But, as with many behavioral experiments linked to above, this study may provide another, and somewhat less obvious, set of tools for enhancing the ethical performance of organizations.

Jeff Kaplan is a partner in the Princeton, New Jersey office of Kaplan & Walker LLP and a member of Ethical Systems’ Steering Committee.

This post was originally published on the Conflicts of Interest blog, and is reprinted with permission.