Organizations lose an estimated 5% of revenue annually as a result of employee fraud, the majority of which are small-scale transgressions, such as padded expense reports, inventory theft, or misappropriating petty cash. In a series of studies, researchers found that employees with photos of loved ones on their desks were much less likely to engage in this kind of unethical behavior. Photos of loved ones appear to offset the economic calculus that tends to underlie people’s thoughts much of the time while they are at work. Workplaces that develop an inclusive culture, where all employees feel comfortable personalizing their workplaces, may find an unexpected benefit.
How much of one’s personal life should be on display in the office? Conventional wisdom suggests that it is best to leave family photos at home, since these types of displays may signal you’d rather be elsewhere.
However, our recent research reveals an unexpected positive consequence of having personal photos at work. In a field survey of working adults and a series of experiments, we found that people were less likely to engage in unethical behavior (e.g., padding expense reports or misappropriating petty cash) when their workspace included photos of their loved ones, rather than photos of landscapes, themselves, strangers, or no photos at all.
In our initial study, full-time employees reported whether and how they personalized their workspace, including whether they displayed photos of loved ones. In addition, their supervisors indicated the extent to which this employee had committed small-scale financial transgressions, such as padding an expense report. We found that employees who had photos of loved ones in view were rated as engaging in less expense report padding than those who did not display these types of photos. Notably, our work found that even one photo of loved ones can have the desired effect, with no evidence that increasing the number of photos strengthened their impact.
To further understand this effect, we designed a series of experiments to test whether the photos actually reduced employees’ unethical behavior or merely influenced their supervisors’ assessments.
In one experiment, undergraduate students were asked to complete multiple tasks in a lab. First, they reviewed picture frames, ostensibly to determine which features of the frames were desirable to consumers. Half of the participants evaluated the frames by inserting photos of their own family, and the other half used stock photos of landscapes. With the photos in front of them, students then completed an additional set of tasks in which they could earn a bonus payment based on their self-reported performance. First, they had to complete a set of math problems — many of which were unsolvable. The students paid themselves a quarter for each problem they reported “solving.” In a second task, students rolled a die and paid themselves half a dollar per dot; the higher the roll, the greater the payout.
There should be no statistical difference between the two groups’ performance, but we found that those who looked at photos of landscapes paid themselves significantly more on both tasks than those who looked at photos of family and friends.
The reason this effect emerges is that photos of loved ones appear to offset the economic calculus that tends to underlie people’s thoughts much of the time while they are at work. Workplace norms tend to prioritize rationality, efficiency, and self-interest, which increases people’s focus on the economic aspects and implications of decisions. Although this mindset is often appropriate for the workplace, this type of thinking is linked to decreases in compassion towards others and increases in immoral behavior. Our studies found that displaying photos of loved ones decreased reliance on economic thinking and in turn reduced financial fraud. We demonstrate this by measuring whether each participant thought about the decision regarding their expense report as mainly an economic decision.
Our practical advice for organizations is to encourage some workplace personalization, with emphasis on displaying photos of family or close friends. However, we recognize that there may be important caveats. For example, the potential cost of displaying photos of loved ones may not be trivial or equal for all employees. Displays of one’s personal life may be particularly challenging for women or employees of color who feel they must code-switch to be seen as “professional” at work. Workplaces should seek to develop an inclusive culture where all employees feel comfortable personalizing their workplaces in this manner. In our field study, we did not observe adverse effects of photo displays on supervisor performance ratings.
Encouraging employee displays of family photos could have positive benefits for the organization, such as fewer cases of inflated expense reports. These seemingly minor but common instances of employee unethical behavior are, in aggregate, very costly to organizations, which lose an estimated 5% of revenue annually as a result of employee fraud, the majority of which are transgressions through asset misappropriation (e.g., padded expense reports, inventory theft, misappropriation of cash) rather than the largescale transgressions typically highlighted in news headlines. Encouraging the display of photos provides a promising intervention for curbing these financial transgressions at work. More broadly, we encourage organizations to be mindful of the cues displayed in their physical environment, as they may have an impact on unethical conduct, as well as workplace behavior more generally.