In four studies, researchers evaluated how corporate misconduct relates to language patterns, perceptions of immorality, and unethical behavior. First, we analyzed nearly 190 codes of conduct from S&P 500 manufacturing companies and observed that corporations with ethics infractions had more linguistically obfuscated codes than corporations without ethics infractions.
Next, they tested perceptions of a company based on values statements modified by obfuscation (Study 2). Participants perceived low obfuscation companies as more moral, warmer, and more trustworthy than high obfuscation companies.
Finally, behavioral experiments (Studies 3a and 3b) revealed that group members cheat more after reading a high-obfuscation values statement than a low-obfuscation values statement.
The results provide evidence of a potentially troublesome cycle: corporate unethicality has linguistic traces, can affect how people appraise a company, and can change ethical behavior.