Getting too many unethical business requests? Sreedhari Desai’s research suggests a quote in your email signature may be the answer to your woes.

In a recent study Desai enrolled subjects to participate in a virtual game to earn money. The subjects were told they’d earn more money if they could convince their fellow players to spread a lie without knowing about it. Basically, subjects had to trick their fellow players into believing a lie, and then get those other players to spread the lie around the game.

What subjects didn’t know is that all their fellow ‘players’ were in fact researchers studying how they would go about their deception. Subjects communicated with the researchers by email. Some researchers had a virtuous quote underneath their email – “Success without honor is worse than fraud”. Others had a neutral quote in their email signature – “Success and luck go hand in hand”. Others had no quote at all.

And wouldn’t you know it? Subjects were less likely to try to recruit people with a virtuous quote in their email. The quote served as a “moral symbol”, shielding the person from receiving unethical requests from other players. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Desai outlines what’s happening in these situations:

When someone is in a position to request an unethical thing, they may not consciously be thinking, “I won’t ask that person.” Instead, they may perceive a person as morally “pure” and feel that asking them to get “dirty” makes an ethical transgression even worse. Or they may be concerned that someone with moral character will just refuse the request.

So, if you want to keep your hands clean it may be as simple as updating your email signature. It won’t guarantee you’ll do the right thing when you’re tempted (there’s more to ethics than pretty words!) but it will ensure you’re tempted less.

There are other, more expensive ways to avoid unethical approaches via email.

And in case you’re looking for a virtuous quote for your email signature, we surveyed some of our staff for their favourite virtuous quotes. Here’s a sample:

  • “The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates
  • “No man wishes to possess the whole world if he must first become someone else” – Aristotle
  • “Protect me from what I want” – Jenny Holzer
  • “A true man goes on to the end of his endurance and then goes twice as far again” – Norwegian proverb
  • “Knowledge is no guarantee of good behaviour, but ignorance is a virtual guarantee of bad behaviour” – Martha Nussbaum

A small disclaimer to all of this – it might not work if you work with Australians. Apparently our propensity to cut down tall poppies and our discomfort for authority extend to moral postulations in email signatures. Instead of sanctimony, Aussies are likely to protect people with fun or playful quotes in their emails. Desai explains:

“We’re studying how people react to moral symbols in Australia. Our preliminary study showed that people there were sceptical of moral displays. They seemed to think the bloke with the quote was being ‘holier than thou’ and probably had something to hide.”

So, as well as your favourite virtuous quote, you might want to bung a joke on the bottom of your emails to please your sceptical Antipodean colleagues, lest they lead you into temptation.