Does Boring Work Make You Naughty?

How does our level of engagement at work affect our sense of ethics? It may not be the most obvious of questions, but research has a lot to say about it. Celia Moore, Associate Professor in the Department of Management and Technology at Bocconi University in Milan, studies ethics in the workplace. Her research with colleagues Rellie Derfler-Rozin and Bradley Staats found that more routine work inspires lower levels of ethical behaviour in workers. Yet they discovered that giving workers the same tasks in a more varied way dampened that tendency. Here, Moore discusses their findings and the surprising implications for inhabitants of the more tedious workplaces out there.

Fletcher: Can you summarize what your study was about and what the findings were?

Moore: It was actually motivated by Rellie [Derfler-Rozin]. She had worked in Israel as a customer service agent at an airline. She wrote a paper about what she thought would be the relationship between higher levels of routinization and more unethical behaviour. We started studying it and found the same pattern over and over again: if you give people all the same tasks in a row, they’re more likely to cheat.

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Sarah Fletcher