An Easy Way to Encourage Employees to Follow Company Rules

To improve compliance with organizational rules, create more variety in the order in which employees perform tasks.

Organizations set rules for a reason — whether that reason is safety, ethics, fairness, quality, or efficiency. Unfortunately, previous research has found that employees often break company rules, and that can have negative consequences for their employers.

However, a new study suggests that a surprisingly simple technique can improve employees’ compliance with organizational rules. The secret? Creating more variety in the order in which employees perform tasks — even without changing the tasks.

Rellie Derfler-Rozin, an assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, Celia Moore, an associate professor of management and technology at Bocconi University in Milan, and Bradley R. Staats, an associate professor of operations at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, hypothesized that changing the order of tasks that employees do so that they experience more variety might induce the workers to switch from a more “automatic pilot” cognitive-processing mode to one involving more deliberate thinking. (These two modes are sometimes called Type 1 [automatic] and Type 2 [deliberative] cognitive processes.) People in a more deliberative frame of mind, the researchers theorized, would be more likely to resist the temptation to break rules to make their lives easier.

Derfler-Rozin, Moore, and Staats first tested this hypothesis in a mortgage application-processing unit of a Japanese bank. They found that, even after controlling for other factors, workers who had more variety in their tasks in a given morning were less likely to break their employer’s rules by taking a longer lunch break than allowed than those workers who happened to have less varied tasks that morning — supporting the researchers’ hypothesis that a greater variety in the way tasks are ordered results in better compliance with rules. (The workers who took longer lunch breaks did not work later in the day to compensate for the extra time spent on break.

The researchers then followed up with two laboratory studies, which similarly found that experiment participants who were given the opportunity to cheat were less likely to do so when given problems to solve in a sequence that varied the order of the types of problem, so that mathematics, verbal, and spatial problems were interspersed with each other. (Detailed findings from Derfler-Rozin, Moore, and Staats’ research were reported in the November-December 2016 issue of the journal Organization Science.)

“By showing that small changes to how tasks are sequenced (one aspect of job design) trigger positive benefits that have not been explored to date (enhanced deliberative thinking), ultimately decreasing organizational rule breaking … our work offers a new tool in the organizational battle against rule breaking,” the researchers wrote.

However, they note that the jobs and experimental settings they studied involved fairly simple tasks. It is not clear whether the same benefits would accrue in jobs where tasks are more complex — and where the cognitive costs associated with task switching may thus be higher.

More generally, this study is part of a growing body of behavioral research that explores the effects of context and cognitive processes on ethical behavior. “Our results are encouraging in showing that organizations can positively influence individuals’ ethical behaviors by making simple changes to their job design,” Derfler-Rozin, Moore, and Staats wrote. “Changing individuals’ motivation may well be a much harder endeavor.”