Fast-growing companies often work at a dizzying pace, prioritizing speed and innovation above all else. But this “ask for forgiveness, not permission” approach–referred to as “locomotion”–can expose companies to ethical violations.
To determine the effect locomotion can have on these rapidly expanding organizations, the authors of a recent article in Harvard Business Review tracked Equal Employment Opportunity Commission discrimination violations at companies that had franchisees from 2007 through 2017, then compiled the names of similar but non-offending businesses.
The authors used a linguistic processing program to score company mission statements in terms of two different types of decision-making language: locomotion terms (act, hurry, speed), versus assessment terms, or words indicating thoughtful evaluation (compare, thorough, question).
The results revealed franchises with mission statements containing a greater number of locomotion terms were more likely to have had an EEOC charge. In addition, the more locomotion terms and fewer assessment terms within a mission statement, the more likely a franchise would be named in an EEOC discrimination settlement.
Interestingly, there were franchises without discrimination charges whose mission statements contained an equal number of locomotion and assessment terms, suggesting a balanced approach can help prevent ethics issues.
In a follow-up experiment, more than 700 U.S.-based online participants were assigned to act as a “manager” of a franchise. After reading their company’s mission statement, participants were presented with various human resources scenarios. Examples included determining whether to transition a disabled worker out of a customer-facing role, or deciding whether to replace an older employee who may be unable to learn software skills, and participants had to choose between an option that violates EEOC regulations and one the commission would recommend.
In the study, the presence of locomotion mission statements coincided with a quadrupled likelihood participants would select the illegal option. This suggests having an urgency-oriented mission statement would more likely result in an EEOC violation, the authors said. In fact, participants reading locomotion mission statements said they felt pressure to decide quickly, and thus tended to overlook ethical implications.
The experiments show the extent to which language influences how employees react to difficult situations, and to how they interact with their peers. Businesses looking to avoid ethical trip-ups would do well to review their mission statements, and to make sure they are discouraging unethical conduct, and not encouraging it.
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