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Faculty Research

The Moral Laboratory

Why and How Your Job Should Help You Become the Best Version of Yourself

What do employees expect out of a job in exchange for an honest day’s work? A paycheck? Medical benefits? A few perks? Some camaraderie with coworkers?

How about the resources to make them better people or to experience more meaningful personal growth?

In Isaac Smith’s opinion—and according to recent workplace survey data—that’s exactly what they should expect. “If you actually look at the hours, many people spend the majority of their waking hours working,” says Smith. “If those hours aren’t spent in becoming your best self, that’s a huge percentage of your life that’s not contributing to you becoming the person you want to be.”

Wait, who’s Isaac Smith? And why should we care about what he thinks? We’ll get to that, but first things first.

Good People, Bad Things

Let’s start with a story, a story about ethics and morality and good versus bad. The star is Sandra (real person, fake name), a mother of two boys who was employed by a small company to write checks to vendors and suppliers. When Sandra’s family faced mounting debt, she panicked and wrote a company check for her personal credit card bill and then covered her tracks carefully in the company’s financial records.

After getting away with it once, Sandra couldn’t resist doing it again—and again and again. Eighty-eight checks and $248,383 later, Sandra found herself spending 18 months in prison for embezzlement. “It got to the point where it truly didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong,” she says. And then the kicker: “I’m not a bad person, but I did a really bad thing.”

Whether or not Sandra is a bad person is not up for us to decide, but what is clear is that Sandra hasn’t become the best version of herself. Her illegal and unethical behavior is the exact focus of traditional business ethics literature and training. And while her story represents a failure, it also highlights a flip side: much less attention has been paid to the ethical implications of organizations that pursue the good, not just avoid the bad.

Which brings us back to Isaac Smith. Smith is an assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources at BYU Marriott, and he wants to see a major shift in how companies navigate ethical challenges. His research with friend and academic colleague Maryam Kouchaki of Northwestern University makes this argument: The workplace should be a “moral laboratory” where character can be developed.

“What if the person was the outcome we cared about?” Smith says. “It reframes the way we think about ethics. It’s not just about right and wrong; it’s looking at the long-term view of the person. All the studies I’ve done have ultimately come back to that central question of ‘How do you help someone become their best self?’”

In other words, instead of simply trying to prevent unethical behavior, organizations should proactively help employees exhibit good behavior. In two recent academic publications, Smith and Kouchaki provide a road map for how any organization with employees can take on this worthy cause of building up the moral fabric of individuals.

The Start of an Ethical Relationship

Smith and Kouchaki first met in their doctoral programs at the University of Utah about a decade ago. They quickly learned where their research interests aligned, which, for this member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and this Muslim, turned out to be fairly significant. They published their first paper together in October 2013 and have since published 10 research articles together, two of which have appeared in Harvard Business Review in recent years.

Somewhere along the way, the two started having conversations about how to help employees become better people at work. Their years of research revealed that it wasn’t a topic usually addressed in business ethics literature, so they dug in a little deeper—well, a lot deeper.

After reviewing more than 200 articles on morality and ethics, they carved out their argument. “Employers care about their employees’ professional development; they invest a lot of money into them,” says Kouchaki, a prolific researcher on the topic of moral decision-making and an associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. “COVID-19 has also reinforced the need for employers to invest in the psychological and mental health of their employees. We think there can be a third element: employers can and should invest in their employees’ character.”

That investment, Smith and Kouchaki believe, doesn’t have to be costly, but it will require a long-term commitment to morality on the part of employers as well as specific plans to implement ethical learning at work. To that end, the professors have parsed out three key mental shifts, five specific barriers to ethical learning, and a slew of recommendations to navigate those barriers. Their road map is idealistic, Kouchaki says, “but it’s the right thing to do.”

Three Mental Shifts

Shift No. 1: People don’t enter the workforce with a fixed moral character. Developing moral character is a lifelong pursuit requiring continual ethical learning.

Hiring good people is a start, but as Sandra from our earlier story illustrated, good people can do bad things. Business leaders need to recognize that “just as employees can nurture (or neglect) their skills and abilities over time, they can learn to be more or less ethical” based on their experiences in an organization, Smith and Kouchaki write in “Building an Ethical Company,” their newest Harvard Business Review piece. “Yet rather than take a long-term view of employees’ moral development, many organizations treat ethics training as a onetime event, often limiting it to the onboarding process.”

Shift No. 2: Ethics and morality at work are not just about avoiding the bad but also about pursuing the good.

“When we think of business ethics, typically that means ‘don’t do bad things,’” Smith says. “The other, very important half of that equation is ‘do good things, do virtuous things.’ . . . In general, humanity tends to have a sense for the good versus the evil, and businesses should help them act on that sense proactively.”

Good corporations should have good intentions—not just good outcomes—and they should engage in good actions. That goodness can be built with values such as honesty, compassion, justice, wisdom, courage, and charity. That pursuit of good can and should be instilled in individual employees.

Shift No. 3: Ethical learning is not limited to nonwork domains, such as theology and philosophy; the workplace is an opportune setting in which to engage in ethical learning and moral character development.

“Work plays a huge role in many people’s lives,” the authors write in “Building an Ethical Company.” “Houses of worship, therapists’ offices, and conversations with close friends and family are traditionally where moral learning occurs. We’re not suggesting that those settings are no longer relevant or important. But a typical full-time employee spends far more time at work than in a mosque, church, or counselor’s office. . . . How could work not affect our moral thinking and actions?”

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant work and personal life are more blended than ever before, and the researchers believe that is a good thing. Says Kouchaki, “It’s unfortunate that we sometimes think that work and life are separate. Your work should be a place that helps you to become the person you want to be. The two should go hand in hand.”

Make these mental shifts, Smith says, and you’re ready to address the barriers to ethical learning at work.

Overcoming the Barriers

There are five main barriers that must be overcome: defensiveness, overconfidence, selfishness, inexperience, and negative social influences. What follows is a short exploration of each of those barriers as well as the guiding principles and recommendations that managers can act on to navigate those barriers.

Barrier No. 1: Defensiveness

Remember our friend Sandra? The “I’m not a bad person, but I did a bad thing” employee? Well, sadly, Sandra’s story is not unique. According to research, people tend to view themselves positively even after making an unethical choice. Like the body uses white blood cells to defend against the threat of infection, the human mind defaults to mental gymnastics to defend against the threat of negative self-perceptions.

“Research has shown the majority of people want to see themselves as good people,” Smith says. “Very few people, even criminals, are okay being a scumbag, so they’re very defensive when they’ve made a mistake. If something threatens their moral self-view, it makes them not want to address that issue. They’ll stay away from it.” In other words, defensiveness hinders moral judgment, and finding a way to forget or rationalize an unethical behavior eliminates the perceived need to learn how to avoid or more appropriately handle such situations in the future.

So how do employers help break down one’s natural urge to be defensive? That’s a tall task, but Smith and Kouchaki believe the answer lies in managers creating psychological safety for their employees. That means having a work environment where employees feel comfortable admitting mistakes, speaking up against the status quo, seeking feedback, and asking for help. To that end, the professors have three specific recommendations:

  • Frame workplace ethics as a learning process: Leaders need to set the expectation that ethical learning is part of the job and make sure their employees are comfortable speaking up on ethical issues when they arise.
  • Invite participation: Managers should make it clear that everyone is part of the process to keep things on the up and up. They may even want to set up formal systems to solicit employee perspectives and opinions, such as suggestion boxes, online forms, or in-person focus group conversations.
  • Respond productively: How a leader responds to an ethical dilemma will go a long way in how sincerely employees feel psychological safety, which is important in disabling their defensiveness. Managers should listen to and take complaints seriously and then address them with a forward-facing approach.

Barrier No. 2: Overconfidence

Overconfidence in general is a bit of a plague, and it most certainly infiltrates the workplace. Sometimes companies contribute to this overconfidence unwittingly by not providing sufficient direct and accurate feedback to workers.

For example, one young journalist in his first full-time job worked under an editor who made few changes to the journalist’s drafts. A year working under this editor gave the reporter an overinflated view of his reporting abilities, and when he was assigned to work with another editor, he was unprepared for the heavy revisions required to improve his writing.

Overconfidence likewise besets moral issues. “People tend to think they’re more moral than they actually are and that, on average, they’re morally superior to others. Hint: they’re not,” Smith says. “People don’t realize their own moral blind spots, and they overestimate their ability to act morally.”

Moral overconfidence stunts ethical learning and growth. If someone doesn’t see their moral weaknesses, they are going to be far less likely to put effort into improving themselves. The solution here, according to the researchers, is for leaders to promote moral humility in the workplace by acting on two recommendations:

  • Help workers understand that everyone has moral blind spots: Unethical workplace behavior is not simply the result of a few bad apples; every employee is susceptible to moral failures.
  • Help workers appreciate others’ moral strengths: Managers might consider assigning “ethical mentors.” The positive effect that mentoring has on job satisfaction has been demonstrated by many a study, yet few organizations make ethics a part of their mentoring efforts.

Barrier No. 3: Selfishness

Surprise! Selfishness among your employees is not conducive to a morally robust workplace. Condoning or rewarding selfishness, particularly in a competitive office, can be a significant barrier to moral progress.

“Selfish employees are less aware of others’ needs and struggles and are thus less likely to seek out opportunities to help others,” Smith and Kouchaki conclude. “And even when selfish people recognize chances to do good, their very nature decreases their desire to act on it because it might require some element of self-sacrifice.”

Thanks to social media with its endless demand for self-congratulation and attention seeking, societal selfishness may be at an all-time high. The duo gives three recommendations to turn back the tide of selfishness in the workplace by actively fostering prosocial motivation:

  • Make social impact salient: Employees who know what their work means for other people find that work more meaningful, so leaders might consider putting their employees in contact with the beneficiaries of day-to-day operations. Machinery and equipment manufacturing company John Deere executes this by inviting farmers and their families to meet with assembly-line workers. Farmers tell how the equipment allows them to provide food for their families and communities. Likewise, US defense contractor Raytheon invites military members to share stories with employees about how the equipment they produce saves lives.
  • Build a sense of community and belonging: Feeling connected to and part of a cause can go a long way in helping employees overcome their selfish motivations.
  • Expand the circle of moral regard: The circle of moral regard is the psychological boundary that includes the people we deem to be deserving of our moral concern. We generally treat the people inside the circle better; thus, the bigger the circle, the more positive behaviors will result for a greater number of individuals.

Barrier No. 4: Inexperience

No senior leaders should simply cross their fingers and hope that new employees properly handle an immediate supervisor asking them to fudge the numbers on a report. The researchers suggest that instead of waiting for experiences like this to happen and then wading through the potential cleanup, leaders should proactively prepare workers for what could happen.

To that end, ethics training and discussions need to be a core part of the organization’s identity. The researchers call it “institutionalizing moral reflection,” which aims to enable workers to better learn from new personal experiences and the experiences of others. More specifically, leaders might want to do these three things:

  • Make ethics a part of pre- and postmortem reviews: At one large healthcare system in the Midwest, two-to-three-hour discussions on the front end of major decisions are part of the organization’s process wherein management makes sure initiatives are ethical and aligned with values. “If you use a moral lens and think about what’s the right thing to do, that will help you in the long run,” Kouchaki says. “Yes, there are costs and challenges, but if you do the right thing, you figure out how to manage it better.”
  • Offer ethics training and mentorship: Mentors can ask the right questions, provide appropriate insights, and share their own relevant experiences to help an employee overcome inexperience.
  • Provide morally relevant experiences: Offering opportunities for service and volunteering and showcasing the prosocial impact of employees’ work can do wonders to overcome inexperience.

Cloud-based software giant Salesforce is a perfect example of an organization that provides morally relevant experiences. Since their founding in 1999, the company has offered employees seven paid days off annually for volunteer work in their communities. Employees are also encouraged to offer their professional skills pro bono to nonprofits that need to understand cloud technology. According to Smith and Kouchaki’s recent Harvard Business Review piece, Salesforce employees have donated more than 6 million hours of service.

“Ultimately, what they’re doing comes back and helps the company be better,” Smith says. “They actually value the employee for the sake of the employee. It’s probably no coincidence that of all the Silicon Valley tech giants, Salesforce has been one of the least tainted by scandal.”

Barrier No. 5: Negative Social Influences

This is admittedly a broad category, but it is also perhaps the greatest barrier to ethical learning in the workplace because it can trigger any of the other barriers previously mentioned. Negative interactions with coworkers or supervisors could spur defensiveness, overconfidence, or selfishness that may not have been readily apparent before. This is why it’s critical that organizations and leaders strive to create an ethical culture from day one.

  • Provide ethical leadership: If leaders in this realm incorporate ethics into formal organizational systems from the top down, employees will know how important morality is to the company culture.

Many of the tips discussed in this article can help lay the foundation for building up that ethical culture: regular ethical trainings, mentorship opportunities, encouragement to serve and volunteer, candid conversations about ethics, and pre- and postmortem briefings.

Smith acknowledges that this is a lot to grasp, but he hopes organizations will at least start to weigh the suggestions and find places where they can make progress. In his words, he hopes to “slowly nudge people into the positive cycle.”

Kouchaki goes one step further and says workers have the right to expect and want this type of experience at their jobs. In exchange for an honest day’s work, people can expect more than a paycheck, medical benefit, and Christmas party, she says. Fundamentally, most people want to do good and be good. Organizations should help them on that journey to their best selves.


By Todd Hollingshead
Illustrations by Jonathan Carlson

About the Author
Todd Hollingshead is a media relations manager in BYU’s University Communications office. A former journalist, Hollingshead holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in mass communications from BYU. He lives in Springville, Utah, with his wife, Natalie; their four children; and a dog and a cat. Discussions on keeping the cat are ongoing.