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NextGen Magazine


Study Finds Companies With More 'We' Language in Code of Conduct Have More Ethics Scandals

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Mar 16, 2020

A recent study outlined in the Harvard Business Review found that companies with codes of conduct that frequently use "we," "our," and other collective language tend to have a higher rate of ethics scandals compared to those with more impersonal language.

Researchers sampled the codes of conduct from 180 different S&P 500 firms from 1990 to 2012, and then had research assistants rate them on how much they used "we" language or "member/employee" language. The former might be something like "we must never lose sight of helping our customers" while the latter might read, "employees are expected to provide customers with the best guidance they can offer."

They then researched these firms for any stories about illegal acts such as environmental violations, anti-competitive actions, false claims and fraudulent actions.

What they discovered was that firms that used personal language in their codes of conduct were more likely to be found guilty of illegal behaviors. Follow-up experiments, in which students joined a fictional study group that had its own code of conduct, found similar results. The researchers hypothesize that employees view companies that use the personal "we" language as more tolerant and forgiving of ethical lapses than those using more impersonal wording, which indicates a transactional relationship.

The researchers said this indicates that subtle differences in language can send outsized cues to employees about the organization's tolerance of wrongdoing. They urged organizations to revisit their codes of conduct and, if necessary, rewrite them with less personal language.