The Fix for Broken Business Ethics Comes in a Spray Bottle

Last Updated May 18, 2010 6:07 PM EDT

As corporate scandals proliferate, so do the measures aimed at curbing them. Books, blogs, and required business-school courses on ethics abound -- Harvard Business School has even chosen an ethics specialist as its new dean. Future business leaders take the MBA Oath -- a voluntary pledge to "create value responsibly and ethically" -- and graduate to join companies that mandate their participation in formal business-ethics programs. But what if there were a much simpler treatment for our diseased corporate morals? New research from professors at the Marriott School, Kellogg, and Rotman, suggests that the road to better behavior might begin with a better-smelling workplace. Laugh if you must, but in two experiments, researchers demonstrated that exposure to clean scents promoted a range of virtuous behaviors in study subjects who were assigned to one of two rooms. The only difference between the two rooms was a spray of citrus-scented Windex.

The first experiment involved a trust game in which each participant in both rooms received $12, allegedly sent by someone in another room. The receivers had to decide how much of the money to keep or return. Those in the clean-scented room returned an average of $5.33, while those in the baseline room returned just $2.81.

In the second experiment, participants were asked to work through packets of tasks, which included fliers seeking Habitat for Humanity volunteers and donations. An average of 4.21 subjects in the clean-scented room indicated an interest in volunteering, as compared to just 3.29 in the baseline room. The difference in their willingness to donate was even more pronounced: 22 percent of the clean-scent room subjects were ready to open their wallets, as compared to just 6 percent in the baseline room.

Rotman professor Chen-Bo Zhong (pictured above), who co-authored the research paper with Marriott's Katie Liljenquist, and Kellogg's Adam Galinsky, says this study builds on previous work that found a link between unethical thoughts and physical cleanliness. "If you feel unethical, you'll feel a need to clean yourself to compensate for your moral dirt," he says. Now the professors have found that cleanliness -- in the form of clean smells -- also influences symbolically clean behaviors characterized by attributes such as fairness, generosity, trustworthiness, and charitableness.

As daily headlines question the ethics of corporations from BP to Goldman Sachs, the notion of unobtrusively and inexpensively regulating behavior with an olfactory intervention is worth considering. And while it's hard to believe that the ethical ills of corporate America could be alleviated by the judicious use of glass cleaner, it couldn't hurt. Besides, who wouldn't enjoy a cleaner-smelling office?