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Corporate Communications: Keep an Equal Balance Between Ethics and Achievement

Words matter. How you phrase verbal and written staff communications about corporate do’s and don’t’s can affect employee behavior, even if the underlying corporate goals and/or policies are the same.

Initial research into this aspect of corporate communications brings some light to this. A working paper by Francesca Gino and Joshua Margolis at the Harvard Business School called “The Importance of ‘Don’t’ in Inducing Ethical Employee Behavior” outlined their preliminary findings. (I recommend reading the comments to the article, too, as they have some well-thought-out disagreements with the article’s conclusions.)

“In general, there are two ways a company can encourage ethical conduct among its employees,” write the authors. “Either the promotion of good actions and outcomes or the prevention of bad ones.” 

Through several experiments, the professors found that inducing a “prevention focus” will lead to ethical behavior more than inducing a “promotion focus,” where increased corner-cutting was observed among study participants to make their goals.

“In encouraging ethical behavior among employees, it behooves firms to consider focusing on preventing negative outcomes, not only in creating a code of ethics but also in setting goals and framing task directives,” state the authors.

In short, whatever you choose to emphasize in your employee communications is what your employees will respond to.

One of the comments to the article pointed out that the use of the word ‘but’ in place of ‘and’ will direct employee attention to everything after ‘but,’ neglecting what preceded it. As an example:

“Stick to these new compliance guidelines, but be sure to hit your numbers!”
“Stick to these new compliance guidelines, and use them to focus your energy on the right sort of deals when working to hit your numbers!”

Retaining ethical, compliant behavior while striving to meet corporate goals is a hard balancing act. Achieving goals is a core motivation among engaged employees that many companies encourage. It is hard to consistently add “but only the right way” in an equally energetic and engaging way. It has to be done consistently, though, or the balanced message critical to a company’s long-term success will be compromised by well-meaning but corner-cutting individuals.

Look no farther than the mortgage industry in the first decade of this century for a classic example where the ‘be  productive’ message got through, but the ‘stay compliant’ message did not. The very message of what staying compliant meant became a moving target as Wall Street clamored for fresh loans to feed their securities pipeline, and competitive pressures pushed brokers and lenders to bend qualifying standards to meet their sales goals. No individual entity led the charge into the sub-prime marketplace, but the disconnection between responsible lending and production goals attracted more and more people to the profitable subprime loans that could be done. The gap between “find loans that make long-term sense” and “find any and all loans you can” grew ever wider until the bridge between them collapsed.

I look forward to seeing what else this research initiative brings to light. If interesting, I will report back in this space!

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