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Why good people sometimes do bad things: 52 reflections on ethics at work
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13. Rules create offenders and forbidden fruits taste the best:
‘If you beep you can’t come in. Rules are rules.’ The prison director’s words were inal,
so female lawyers visiting the prison went without their bras. What was going on?
All visitors had to pass a metal detector at the prison entrance. If the device beeped,
the visitors were required to get rid of the offending material, such as belts and loose
change, and walk through the gate again. The detectors were so sensitively tuned that
they also began to beep for very small metal objects, such as the metal underwires in bras.
The management insisted that the metal detector worked perfectly and that rules were
rules. The warders therefore demanded that the female lawyers take off their bras before
entering the prison.
Just as we saw in the previous chapter, fear and uncertainty among the prison management
led to ‘beeping’ at everything, and they lost sight of common sense. It clearly shows a lack of
respect to demand that female lawyers take off their bras and walk around the prison without
On the one hand this event is exceptional (although at a nearby prison experiencing similar
exaggerated beeping, the story was that the warders themselves set off the device for
young, attractive lawyers). On the other hand, all kinds of workplace rules can be experienced
as stiling and intimidating. There are organizations where employees are not permitted to
receive any business gift whatsoever, not so much as a ballpoint pen, where all non-work-
related websites are inaccessible, and where people can be sacked for making a phone call
in the car, even if it is for work purposes. In such cases, organizations not only run the risk of
employees becoming anxious and suffering from hypegiaphobia, there is another risk which
brings these rules hurtling back like a boomerang.
James Pennebaker and Deborah Sanders wanted to know what effect prohibitions had on
people’s behavior. What happens, for example, if a sign is put up stating that grafiti on the
wall is prohibited? How effective is this, and what factors does its effectiveness depend on?
They placed two kinds of signs at eye level in the public toilets of a university. One contained
13. Rules create offenders and forbidden fruits taste the best: reactance theory