Two professors, Dr. Sreedhari Desai at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and Dr. Maryam Koucaki, assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern Kellogg, wanted to see if there is some way to inoculate yourself against a bad boss.  They define a bad boss as someone who tries to get you to compromise your moral principles in the execution of your job.

Think of those employees at Volkswagon who had to dishonorably rig their diesel vehicles to deceitfully pass emissions tests.  Or risk losing their job.

What the professors found was that moral symbols placed in your work space are effective.  Their work will soon be published in the Academy of Management Journal.

“Pictures of Jesus, Gandhi, Buddha have this weird effect, according to the research. Bosses are less likely to ask you to do unethical or immoral activities,” says business consultant Dr. Daren Martin, known as the “Culture Architect,” and author of A Company of OwnersMartin says that when selecting your symbols you do have to be sensitive to other’s religious sensibilities.

Dr. Kouchaki and Desai conducted five laboratory tests and one survey to test their theory that exposure to moral symbols reduced immoral behavior. 

“Written words and slogans are also effective,” Dr. Martin suggests.  “If I send an email that reads, ‘Honesty is the best policy,’ the study revealed that people are less likely to send a dishonest response to me, or to ask me to do something dishonest.”


Why people react sublimely to moral symbols isn’t completely understood, but it puts everyone on notice that you’re not someone to be trifled with.