Hold up a cross and many people might think you’re trying to ward off vampires. But a new study finds hanging one in your cubicle might have the same effect on morally compromised bosses .

“We keep hearing stories of people saying that they had to do unethical things to keep their job, because they were asked to do them, and they felt they couldn’t say no,” said co-author Maryam Kouchaki, a professor at Northwestern University’s School of Management, in a press release. “We wanted to figure out if there is a way that someone could say no in a subtle but effective way to prevent such difficult situations in the first place.”

For the research, published in the Academy of Management Journal, researchers looked for a solution with five laboratory experiments and one survey. They recruited 148 college students to exchange emails with anonymous team members named Pat and Sam. The students were split into two teams, which received introductory emails from either Pat or Sam. Pat’s included the moral quote, “Better to fail with honor than succeed by fraud,” while Sam’s emails didn’t.  

In a hypothetical workplace situation, those who received Pat’s email then had to decide whether they would send an honest or deceptive message to the other group, and who they’d nominate to send it. They were told their team would lose $18 if it sent an honest message, but only $3 if it sent a deceptive one.

The researchers found only 46 percent of Pat’s group chose to send a deceptive message compared to 64 percent of Sam’s group. When it came to choosing who’d receive the email, participants in Pat’s group were far less willing to choose Pat (23 percent vs. 55 percent in Sam’s group).

When participants were asked what helped them decide, none said the email quotes had an influence. Yet, when the researchers conducted similar studies, they came to the same conclusion; a subconscious thought process on ethics influenced people’s actions in the workplace.

Researchers decided to test their theories in the real world. They surveyed 104 boss-subordinate pairs from various organizations in India, where religious tokens are commonly placed in desk areas. They found subordinates who displayed moral symbols, like pictures of Jesus, Buddha, or Krishna, or rosary beads were more likely to be considered employees with high moral character. They were also less likely to be placed in ethically compromising situations, even if their supervisors practiced a different religion.

"We want to empower people," Kouchaki said. "We want people to feel they have control over their situations, and that there are things they can do to prevent questionable behaviors from others."

Employees can do this by placing symbols around their desk that signify a moral compass. Kouchaki says this will help them avoid backlash from a boss for refusing to partake, or even prevent the morally compromising situation from happening in the first place. Giving subordinates the power to influence behavior in the office from the bottom up is key to improving overall workplace ethics, he said.

Source: Desai SD. and Kouchaki M . Moral Symbols: A Necklace of Garlic Against Unethical Requests . Academy of Management Journal. 2016.