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Study Shows How Your Coworkers’ Morals Can Help You Do the Right Thing

People are more likely to speak up when they see other employees displaying moral messages at work

Highly moral people might always “do the right thing” when it comes to speaking up about wrongdoings and problems in the workplace. But even people who lack that moral compass become more likely to speak up when they see other employees displaying moral messages at work, finds new research coauthored by management professor Debra L. Shapiro at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Shapiro worked with Salar Mesdaghinia of the University of Eastern Michigan and Robert Eisenberger of the University of Houston on the study, “Prohibitive Voice as a Moral Act: The Role of Moral Identity, Leaders, and Workgroups,” recently published in the Journal of Business Ethics.

They wanted to understand what makes employees more versus less likely to speak up about harmful practices in the workplace.

Employees who speak up about existing or impending work practices, behaviors, and incidents that they believe are harming others and need to be stopped or corrected are using “prohibitive voice.” Employees’ prohibitive voice can help organizations protect the rights of clients and employees, prevent harm to the public and the environment, prevent catastrophic accidents and injuries—improving or even saving lives. These many benefits of prohibitive voice are lacking in organizations whose employees opt not to speak up about the problems they see because of fears of being ostracized, harshly evaluated, and/or a target of future retaliation by coworkers or supervisors who prefer them to remain silent.

“Prohibitive voice doesn’t have to be about calling attention to a law violation of some kind; instead, it can be about any act in the organization that seems to be causing harm to others and/or to the organization itself,” Shapiro says. “It might regard inefficiencies or coordination problems that, if left unreported or unfixed, seem likely to harm the organization’s performance, reputation, safety, etc.”

Although this description of prohibitive voice makes it seem less risky than “blowing the whistle” (which often pertains to reporting law-violations), some employees may fear of backlash from supervisors and/or coworkers who may be involved with the acts they identify as needing to cease, often preventing them from speaking up.

“Given the moral necessity and organizational benefits of prohibitive voice, it behooves organizations to understand what variables enhance versus weaken employees’ likelihood of voicing the problems they see,” write the researchers.

Using a “moral lens” to guide their choice of predictors, Shapiro and her coauthors predicted that prohibitive voice would probably be more frequently used by employees who have a strong internal moral compass (or “internal moral identity”) and a strong outward-manifestation of this—that is, a high level of moral-related symbolic acts (or “moral identity-symbolization”)—such as clothes, books, and organizational-affiliations reflective of their internalized morals.

Given the tendency for employees to not speak up when they fear backlash for doing so, Shapiro and her coauthors also predicted that employees who viewed their relationship with their supervisor as a highly supportive one would be more likely to speak up about problems they see at work. Knowing a manager “has your back” can make it much more likely that you’ll feel comfortable raising your concerns in the workplace, says Shapiro.

Shapiro and her coauthors surveyed 134 employees (who represented 25 workgroups) and their supervisors working at a hospital in the Southwestern United States; their choice of a hospital setting was because “errors in those settings can be deadly,” Shapiro says.

These researchers asked employees to indicate: (1) how strongly they agreed or disagreed that nine moral traits (among these being honest, helpful, fair, and caring) were an important part of how they define themselves as a person; (2) how strongly they agreed or disagreed that they outwardly manifest, or symbolize, these moral traits—for example, by their choice of activities, clothing, and more; and (3) how supportive their relationship was with their supervisor.

Approximately five months later, Shapiro and her coauthors sent a survey to these employees’ supervisors asking them to indicate, for each employee in their workgroup, the extent to which the employee: speaks up about problems even when others may disagree, voices opinions on inefficiencies, even if that may embarrass others, points out problems, even if that may harm relationships with other employees, reports coordination problems in the workplace to management, and advises other employees against behaviors that would lessen job performance.

As predicted by Shapiro and her coauthors, employees with a stronger (rather than weaker) internal moral identity tended to more frequently use prohibitive voice, says Shapiro; and this tendency was even stronger when employees also had a higher-quality relationship with their supervisor. This means, conversely, that the researchers found that even employees with a strong moral compass were hesitant to speak up about problems when they didn’t have a good relationship with their supervisor.

Also as predicted, Shapiro and her coauthors found the compensatory relationship they predicted: employees with low moral identity tended to more often speak up about problems at work when they belonged to workgroups whose members engaged in more moral symbolization.

“You can’t see people’s morals; these become visible—literally—only if work-colleagues display them,” Shapiro says. “Seeing people’s morals displayed—more so than working with people who might be internally highly moral—apparently acts like a contagion: moral displays apparently ignite moral courage, even from those from whom you might least expect this.”

And compared to direct requests for moral behavior, symbols are more subtle, less risky, and less resistance-provoking, write the researchers. “These features make moral symbolism appropriate for nudging others in the direction of moral behavior without using formal authority, as occurs, for example, when employees want to influence superiors and peers.”

“When people are working with a workgroup or team that outwardly displays strong moral symbols, the need for a person to have a strong moral internal moral identity is less important, as is the need for a strong boss. This powerful normalizing effect of workgroups’ moral identity-symbolization is something never before now theorized nor found in prior studies aiming to identify antecedents to employees’ speaking up about work-related concerns,” says Shapiro.

In their article, Shapiro and her coauthors suggest that organizations who want their employees to use prohibitive voice, a moral act, do things to heighten employees’ moral identity—for example, by permitting and legitimizing expressions of moral traits at work. This could mean role-modeling moral actions by visibly becoming involved in community volunteerism or fundraising opportunities, and/or by visibly displaying photographs, artwork, awards, or other artifacts conveying moral messages throughout the organization.

Shapiro says. “If someone voluntarily wants to display a moral message, our research findings suggest this should not be quashed. Ideally, however, one worker’s choice of a moral message should be something that is unlikely to offend others in their shared workspace.”

Recruiting and selecting employees with strong internal moral identity and then, also, building high-quality relationships between employees and their supervisors are additional ways to heighten employees’ likelihood of speaking up, Shapiro says. “But,…” she adds with caution, “… the latter strategies fail to recognize that employees lacking the latter qualities will be more likely to use prohibitive voice when they are in workgroups or teams that engage in high levels of moral identity-symbolization.”

 - This press release was originally published on the University of Maryland, Robert H. Smith School of Business website