A Harvard University business professor widely considered to be a leading thinker in the field of behavioral ethics — and whose research is widely cited by corporate compliance professionals as you formulate your training materials and internal policies — has been suspended amid allegations that the professor faked her research.
The professor, Francesca Gino, has been on administrative leave from Harvard Business School since at least last week. That coincides with reports first published in the Chronicle of Higher Education that Gino may have fabricated data going back more than a decade; and with a detailed analysis of Gino’s work published online by a trio of academics. The three picked apart flawed data in four academic papers that Gino had published over the years, and Harvard has reportedly asked that at least three of those four papers now be retracted.
Needless to say, Gino’s suspension, plus the prospect that many of her behavioral ethics theories might not be true, has set the compliance commentariat abuzz. Below is just a small sample of one conversation on LinkedIn started by Vera Cherepanova, an ethics adviser based in Italy:
So what are these misconduct allegations, and how might they have affected corporate compliance programs? That trio of academics, who are publishing their findings on a website called DataColada.org, are the place to start.
The three academics pointed to a famous study from 2012 co-authored by Gino, Dan Ariely (yes, that Dan Ariely, author of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, Predictably Irrational, and numerous other pop psychology books), and several other academics. That study measured whether having employees sign an “honesty pledge” at the top of a form rather than the bottom would make employees less likely to cheat on a game they had to play.
At the time, Gino & Co. said that putting the honesty pledge at the top — effectively making employees commit themselves to an ethical standard before they begin an activity — led to much less cheating. Sounds great, right? You may well have heard that theory on any number of ethics and compliance webinars over the years. I know I have.
Except, that paper was retracted in 2021. On the DataColada website, the three academics walk through a detailed argument of how the data had to be fabricated to get the results Gino & Co. reported.
So if you designed your employee training and policy manuals based on that paper’s findings, that may well have been a waste of your time. I don’t necessarily know that putting an ethics certification first is bad — meaning, employees would be less likely to be honest when you do so — but we really have no proof that putting it first would be better, either.
The rest of the allegations against Gino aren’t fully public (the DataColada people submitted their report directly to Harvard, which then conducted its own investigation), but they’re along the same lines: deliberate fabrication of data in Gino’s research.
Behavioral Ethics Writ Large
Before we all jump to conclusions that the whole field of behavioral ethics is bunk, we should remember a few points.
First, the allegations of fabricated research have been leveled against Gino alone. Her critics are quick to stress that they have no evidence that Ariely or her other co-authors have also fabricated their data or findings. At least one of her co-authors has already published a statement saying he wished he’d worked harder (on that honesty pledge research) to identify the bogus data at the time.
Second, academia has long had challenges with reproducing research results generally. Sometimes the issue is actual fraud, which is the accusation here; but plenty of times academics do their best to reproduce someone else’s findings, and they just can’t. That doesn’t mean the first research findings are inherently invalid, or that we should stop conducting research altogether.
I say this because some people will inevitably seize on the allegations against Gino to say that all academic research is suspect, especially in fields as imprecise as human ethics. That’s ridiculous.
Your alternative would be what, exactly? Not to bother with the study of human behavior at all? To implement rigid compliance programs based on control, rather than corporate culture? Maybe you could get such a system to enforce employee behavior (although I wouldn’t bet on it), but it sounds like a terrible world to me.
The allegations against Gino deserve a full inquiry, and if she did indeed fabricate her research, then she should be run out of town. That’s still no reason to stop pushing forward in behavioral ethics. We’re never going to perfect the human condition, but we can improve it, and thoughtfully designed corporate compliance programs do play a part in that quest.