Ashley Hardin

Changing the frame: Family photos on your desk could make you more ethical on the job


Got your grinning kid or smiling spouse in a frame on your desk? You’re less likely to lie to your boss or pad that expense report.

David Mayer

David Mayer

That’s the key finding of a study co-authored by Dave Mayer, a business ethics professor at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. It’s certainly among the most down-to-earth insights in a trove of research by Mayer and his colleagues that explores ethics in the workplace from multiple angles—micro to macro—from the influence of family pictures in the office to the fundamental organizational environment.

Mayer’s collaborators are Ashley Hardin of Washington University’s Olin Business School, who received a doctorate from Ross, and Chris Bauman of University of California, Irvine’s Merage School of Business. Mayer discussed some of what they’ve learned about ethics in the workplace and, given the pandemic, how it all might be playing out in the work-from-home place.

In short, your work seems to suggest, at least in part, we’re governed by forces out of our control or at least things we thought were unrelated when it comes to our professional behavior.

Although it is true that we are influenced by things out of our control and out of our conscious awareness, in my view what unites my research is a focus on how the context we are in influences our ethical and unethical behavior. The research on family photos highlights that our physical context, what we see when we look around, has implications for reducing unethical conduct. The research on an organizational ethical climate focuses on the social and organizational context. The policies, practices and procedures that get rewarded and supported in organizations have a huge impact on whether leaders and frontline employees will be ethical or not.

What ties together these research articles is the idea that our immediate environment—whether it be the physical, social or organizational context—plays a large role in determining whether we will “cook the books” or lead in line with our personal and organization’s core values.

Let’s talk about those photos of loved ones, or “close others,” as you call them. So you really do find evidence to suggest that their very presence on or near a desk can make workers less likely to act in a self-interested way? Can you describe how you got to that finding?

Ashley Hardin

That’s right. The idea is that the work environment is generally one of economic exchange. Although that can be benign, being transactional can have unintended negative consequences. For example, prior research finds being in an “economic mindset” or simply taking a class in economics can lead to self-interested and often less compassionate and more unethical behavior. There is something about viewing work as a series of economic exchanges that can strip the moral aspects out of the work environment.

In our research, we find that when employees indicate having photos of close others up at work that their managers report that the employees are less likely to pad their expense accounts. In a series of experiments, we find that having a photo of a close other (as compared to a stranger, environmental landscape or building) reduces the extent to which they view work as simply an economic domain and helps align their behaviors with their core values such that they are less likely to lie for personal financial gain. We think that seeing photos of close others helps people think of their core values and protects them from the insidious effects of viewing everything as an economic exchange that is devoid of moral relevance.

Now, it’s no secret a lot of people are working from home because of the pandemic. While your research may not address it directly, can you extrapolate how such environmental or organizational influences could affect a worker who is remote?

The world of work is different now and will likely be irrevocably changed due to COVID-19. Companies such as Dropbox recently stated that they will be a completely virtual company going forward. It’s possible that seeing family members could have a similar effect as looking at photos of family members so working from home could help reduce misconduct. However, given the prevalence of homeschooling and economic stress in many homes, coupled with the lack of monitoring and direct accountability, my guess is that working from home during COVID-19 will lead to slightly worse behavior. Going forward, with more people working remotely, my sense is that employees’ behavior working from home will be similar to when they were in the office.

What else is important to know from your research—especially that which might surprise people—about ethics in business?

Most people tend to think that characteristics of a person drive whether someone is ethical or not. For example, one’s upbringing, religious values or even genetics must determine whether a person is a good apple or a bad egg. While those factors matter to some degree, my research and decades of science in social and organizational psychology tell us that we vastly underestimate the impact of our immediate environment on our behavior. Good people can do bad things in certain contexts, and the reverse is true as well.

Given people and organizations do not have control over how someone is raised nor their genes, the most fruitful approach to nudge behavior in an ethical direction is by changing the context—whether it be the physical context in terms of their workspace or the social context in terms of the organization’s ethical climate that leaders help shape.

More information:


This story was originally published by Michigan News.

Show me the … family: How photos of meaningful relationships reduce unethical behavior at work


Environmental cues in the workplace influence unethical behavior, but the effects of these cues are less well understood than the effects of individual differences and social aspects of situations on unethical behavior. In this paper, we examine a common but underappreciated aspect of workspaces: photos of close others. Drawing on the literatures on symbols at work and behavioral ethics, we theorize that having photos of close others in sight decreases the hegemony of an economic schema in people’s minds, which in turn decreases their propensity to commit unethical behavior. Supporting our theory, a field survey and three experiments find a negative relationship between displaying photos of close others at work and financial transgressions and indicate that a decrease in the salience of the economic schema is a mechanism that drives the effect. We discuss implications of the results for the literatures on behavioral ethics, symbols at work, and work-life integration.

Silver linings, home tours, video conference bingo: Reimagining virtual meetings for connection


Center for Positive Organizations (CPO) faculty affiliate Adam Grant interviews CPO co-founder Jane Dutton in the TED article “The secret to making Zoom meetings meaningful for you and your coworkers.”

The interview explores how virtual meetings can be reimagined in the pandemic age to encourage high-quality connections. Dutton defines a “high-quality connection” as, “a shorter-term interaction you have with someone virtually or face to face, in which both people feel lit up and energized by the connection.”

Dutton encourages teams to try creative conversation prompts, experiment with playful activities and get comfortable blurring the boundary between home and work life. Dutton cites research by CPO faculty affiliate Ashley Hardin that demonstrates shared personal knowledge has a humanizing affect.

“There’s this idea that we need to put on our professional masks and we don’t want to blur the boundary between the professional and the personal, but her research suggests there’s not a lot of downside to letting people know more about you,” Dutton says.

Dutton is a CPO core faculty member and the Robert L. Kahn Distinguished University Emerita Professor of Business Administration and Psychology at the University of Michigan.

Dishonesty can have a long term effect on our ability to interact with others


Researchers Julia Lee, a core faculty member, as well as faculty affiliate Ashley Hardin, and their colleagues Bidhan Parmar of Darden School of Business, and Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School found that those who engaged in deceit were less accurate at judging the emotions of others.

They explained their research in the article “How dishonesty drains you” they wrote for Scientific American. They discovered that small acts of dishonest behavior, or white lies, that may seem harmless or trivial, can actually hurt a person’s ability to interact with peers.

Results of these studies also suggest that those who engage in dishonest behavior, distance themselves from others, which allows them to continue to tell lies, leading them down the path of consistent unethical behavior.

The interpersonal costs of dishonesty: How dishonest behavior reduces individuals’ ability to read others’ emotions


In this research, we examine the unintended consequences of dishonest behavior for one’s interpersonal abilities and subsequent ethical behavior. Specifically, we unpack how dishonest conduct can reduce one’s generalized empathic accuracy—the ability to accurately read other people’s emotional states. In the process, we distinguish these 2 constructs from one another and demonstrate a causal relationship. The effects of dishonesty on empathic accuracy that we found were significant, but modest in size. Across 8 studies (n = 2,588), we find support for (a) a correlational and causal account of dishonest behavior reducing empathic accuracy; (b) an underlying mechanism of reduced relational self-construal (i.e., the tendency to define the self in terms of close relationships); (c) negative downstream consequences of impaired empathic accuracy, in terms of dehumanization and subsequent dishonesty; and (d) a physiological trait (i.e., vagal reactivity) that serves as a boundary condition for the relationship between dishonest behavior and empathic accuracy. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved)

Dishonest behavior damages the ability to read other people’s emotions


Research by Professor Julia Lee reveals how doing the wrong thing can harm interpersonal relationships.

People who act dishonestly don’t only hurt the people they’ve wronged — they also harm themselves.

New research by Michigan Ross Professor Julia Lee and colleagues finds that individuals who engage in dishonest behavior become less accurate at reading the emotions of other people. The findings suggest that unethical actions can directly affect how people think.

To reach their conclusions, Lee and her fellow researchers — Ashley Hardin of Washington University, Bidhan Parmar of the University of Virginia, and Francesca Gino of Harvard University — devised experiments that involved rolling a die, predicting the result, and being paid for correct predictions. For some participants, it was possible to cheat to earn more money, while for others, it was not possible to cheat.

Then, the participants were asked to gauge the emotions of other individuals — one experiment used actors in videos while another used real people in the lab.

“We found that there is a relationship between behaving badly and the ability to read other people’s emotions,” Lee said. Cheating in the study led to a reduced ability to accurately interpret the feelings of others. The paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, is believed to be the first time that such a link has been established.

Reading emotions is an important skill, Lee noted, because you can’t offer to help someone who’s struggling if you can’t even tell that something is wrong. “Building a compassionate organization starts from being able to read other people’s emotions accurately,” she said.

In addition, the researchers found that after cheating once, the reduced ability to read emotions made the participant even more likely to cheat a second time. “It’s a vicious cycle,” Lee said. “We had one study that showed that as a result of this vicious cycle, you’re also more likely to dehumanize other individuals.”

That fuels negative biases toward out-group members, and that is a huge problem for a lot of organizations trying to have a more inclusive workplace, she said.


This article was originally published as a Ross News Blog post.

Wayne Baker, Jane Dutton, Ashley Hardin quoted by HBR about personal crisis at work


Wayne Baker, Jane Dutton, Ashley Hardin are quoted in the Harvard Business Review article, “What to do when a personal crisis is hurting your professional life.” The article presents strategies for dealing with crisis and cites research by Baker, Dutton, and Hardin.

Baker is Robert P. Thome Professor of Business and Faculty Director of the CPO Consortium. His research interests include energy networks in organizations, generosity and reciprocity, and values.

Dutton is co-founder for the Center for Positive Organizations and Robert L. Kahn Distinguished University Emerita Professor of Business Administration and Psychology. She researches the power of positive relationships at work, job crafting, and positive identities.

Hardin is Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Washington University’s Olin Business School and former doctoral fellow at the Center for Positive Organizations. Her research interests include interpersonal processes in organizations and how these processes are influenced by aspects of people’s non-work lives spilling into the workplace.

Ashley E. Hardin named 2016-17 Rackham Predoctoral Fellow


Ashley E. Hardin, a Michigan Ross PhD candidate and CPO doctoral research fellow, has been named a 2016-17 Rackham Predoctoral Fellow. The fellowship supports exceptional doctoral students whose dissertation research is “unusually creative, ambitious, and risk-taking.”

Hardin is studying the relational embedding of work behavior, examining processes including compassion, respectful engagement, and cooperation. She is also an active member of the CompassionLab, a small group of researchers creating a new vision of organizations as sites for development and expression of compassion in response to suffering.

Respect as an engine for new ideas: Linking respectful engagement, relational information processing and creativity among employees and teams


In four studies we examine whether and why respectfully engaging with other organizational members can augment creativity for individuals and teams. We develop and test a model in which respectful engagement among organizational members facilitates relational information processing, which in turn results in enhanced creative behaviors. We found a similar pattern across all four studies – respectful engagement is indirectly related, through relational information processing, to creative behavior at both the individual and team levels. These findings underscore the importance of respectful engagement in facilitating relational information processing and fostering creative behaviors at both the individual and team levels.

Respect as an engine for new ideas: Linking respectful engagement, relational information processing and creativity among employees and teams


In four studies we examine whether and why respectfully engaging with other organizational members can augment creativity for individuals and teams. We develop and test a model in which respectful engagement among organizational members facilitates relational information processing, which in turn results in enhanced creative behaviors. We found a similar pattern across all four studies – respectful engagement is indirectly related, through relational information processing, to creative behavior at both the individual and team levels. These findings underscore the importance of respectful engagement in facilitating relational information processing and fostering creative behaviors at both the individual and team levels.