Conventional wisdom dictates that offices should be free of personalization. This means that some employers frown upon the display of family photos in the workplace. This way, cubicles are free of any “distractions” that might make employees less productive than they should be. But here’s what’s interesting: research published in the Harvard Business Review showed that there is an “unexpected positive consequence” of having those family photos on your office desk.

The research said that employees are less likely to engage in unethical behavior such as fraud and misappropriating petty cash when their workspaces have photos of their loved ones—family members and friends. Photos of themselves, landscapes, or none at all do not yield the same positive results. Those who put up custom picture prints of their loved ones are also more productive at work. On top of that, they are also less likely to be suspects in padding expense reports, accepting bribes from clients and suppliers, and diverging funds into their own personal accounts.

What the Initial Study Found Out

The first study took a look at whether the employees are personalizing their workspaces by posting photos of loved ones. Their supervisors are also asked to indicate the extent to which these employees have been engaged in small-time fraud in the organization. The study showed that employees with photos of their loved ones on their desks have fewer instances of engaging in padding an expense report. This is in comparison to those who do not display photos of their friends or family.

The difference is compelling because a single photo of a loved one has that effect. There is also no evidence that increasing the number of photos will also make them better employees in the sense that they will not engage in fraudulent activities. This means that a single photo alone has that desired effect.

empty workspace

Economic Impact of the Study

The results from this study will show another thing that’s important to the success of every organization: employees who have photos of their loved ones on their desks are also less likely to demand higher pay from their companies. To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers had two sets of employees complete a set of math problems and roll a dice. They will pay themselves half a dollar per dot.

There should be no difference in how the employees pay themselves since the math problems are unsolvable. However, it turned out that those who have photos of their loved ones on their desk are more economical—they pay themselves less than those who only have landscape photos in their cubicles. Why is that so?

It turned out that those who have family photos on their desk have more compassion and are more honest. They rely less on the economics of their activities. Instead, they depend on their integrity, discipline, and commitment—the things one learns from their families or want to pass on to their children—when making decisions in the office.

People with no family photos on their desks are more rational and efficient, yes. These are the things an employer looks for in employees. However, they are also focused on their self-interest, which makes them more susceptible to small-time financial transgressions in the office.

Practical Advice for Organizations

You can start encouraging some workplace personalization. Let your employees know that you are comfortable seeing photos of their families and friends in their workstations. Allow them to design their cubicles to fit their personality. As long as it is not a cause of distraction to other employees, they should be allowed to personalize their desks freely.

Others who are not comfortable displaying photos of their loved ones, however, should not be forced to. Instead, you have to find out why they may want to keep this part of themselves hidden. Some studies show that people of color feel they must “code-switch” to be more professional at work. This means that your workplace is not as inclusive as you thought it was. You may want to focus on encouraging diversity and inclusivity before you allow employees to start personalizing their workstations.

Even the most minor of unethical behavior in the office can hurt the organization as a whole. Remember that a dollar lost due to dishonesty is worth the value of that employee. While employees should take it upon themselves to act ethically in their workplaces, it doesn’t hurt to help them, too. Something as simple as letting them display their families’ photos will make such a huge difference in their lives and on your business, so better start encouraging them to do it.


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