When I recently received an email from a colleague with the subject line “The Daily Stat,” I thought, another silly forwarded email. But I was wrong, it read, “Extra Thinking Time Leads to Ethical Decisions.” Turns out that The Daily Stat is an email sent out from the Harvard Business Review and the article was a report about a new research study with some very telling numbers.
Led by J. Keith Murnighan, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in charge of the research, the study says that seven out of eight subjects chose not to be dishonest in a situation where they stood to gain if they were given three minutes to contemplate their choice. When told to make an immediate decision, more than half lied for personal gain. According to the HBR, the “study suggests disarmingly simple way to better job ethics: slow down.”
The full study, which will appear in the upcoming issue of The Academy of Management Journal, points out an equally simple fact that we have long supported: having an ethical position in place, via a solid compliance program, a code of ethics, employee training, a hotline reporting program, etc., gives people both the time and a way to contemplate their actions.
Murnighan says that “having time to think things over may not make much difference in big-time financial swindles, but our findings suggest that it would make a considerable difference in innumerable instances of lying and fraud that happen every day in the business world.” The study finds that “even a modest nudge on behalf of morality can carry the day in such battles, with ethical urgings four times more likely to engender good deeds than advice on behalf of self-interest will.”
This may read a bit academically highbrow, but you’ll get the gist of it: “The study urges organizations to consciously design moral decision-making processes, integrating them into training and enforcing them institutionally via policies, rewards, and sanctions. Policies mandating a ‘cooling-off period’ or multiple levels of approval for consequential decisions, for example, might provide institutional analogs for contemplation, and ethics hotlines might act as institutional conversations. Opportunities for instituting and improving these kinds of procedures abound.”
Translation? Set down ethical policies and codes of conduct for your employees, train them on what behavior is accepted and expected, give them a way to discuss any issues and incidents that do occur, and actively promote this attitude across the entire enterprise.
So for the sake of ethics, slow down, but for the sake of your organization’s ethical health, be quick about it.