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Do you have family photos on your desk? They might be keeping you honest

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Ashley Hardin of Washington University

Ashley Hardin, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Washington University's Olin Business School, works at her home office on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. Photo by Joe Angeles/Washington University

David Nicklaus is a business columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

For many workers, displaying family photos is a way to remember they have a life outside the office.

According to a novel new study, those snapshots also serve another purpose: keeping the worker honest.

Ashley Hardin, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Washington University’s Olin Business School, noticed a few years ago that career-advice articles were telling people not to place personal photos on their desks. They’re unprofessional, some workplace gurus said, and might make the boss think you’re less than 100% committed to the job.

That advice sounded wrong to Hardin, who has long studied the intersection of people’s personal and professional lives. She figured it was worth studying whether personal photos have any effect, positive or negative, in the workplace.

Hardin and two co-authors, from the University of California-Irvine and the University of Michigan, started by surveying 181 workers and their supervisors. The presence of family photos didn’t affect how a supervisor rated a worker’s performance, but the bosses viewed photo-displaying workers as significantly less likely to lie on their expense accounts.

The researchers followed up with a series of experiments in which subjects were paid for self-reported results on simple tasks, such as rolling a die. Some subjects sat next to personal photos while others — the control group — were assigned to desks decorated with impersonal images, such as a city skyline.

In each experiment, members of the control group were more likely to fib than the folks looking at personal photos.

One test involved an imaginary expense account. Participants were given a list of actual costs for a business trip, totaling $42.50, but told they could request up to a maximum amount for each category, such as lunches or taxis. Both groups fudged, but the people staring at family photos only padded the expenses by about $20. The control group added $28, or 40% more.

Hardin found the results striking. She believes desktop photos affect the “schema,” or mindset, that a worker is operating in.

An office that emphasizes financial metrics and de-emphasizes the human element can put employees in a cold, calculating frame of mind. “When we have that mindset, we may be likely to do things that are less ethical — round something up here, cut a corner there,” Hardin said.

Such a bottom-line-oriented culture can lead to Enron-size scandals, but it also can tempt employees into smaller transgressions. By one estimate, employees siphon off 5% of a typical organization’s revenue through expense-account padding, inventory theft and other forms of fraud.

Photos change the atmosphere. They make the worker think, “What kind of values do I want to pass on to my kids?” Or, “What would Mom say?”

The study comes out at a time when millions of workers don’t need photos to remind them of family: They’re working at home, in close proximity to loved ones. All else equal, Hardin believes, that should make workers more honest.

She cautions, however, that COVID-19 has created new levels of stress for many families. “When people are being taxed in that way it could cause them to become unethical for different reasons,” Hardin said.

Presumably, most of us eventually will leave our dining rooms or dens and return to our cubicles. When that day comes, it might be a good idea to bring along fresh photos of spouses, parents, children or friends. They’ll not only make you feel more at home; they’ll also make you a more ethical employee.

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David Nicklaus is a business columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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