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Why and When Do People Cheat at Work?

Why and When Do People Cheat at Work?

We are all aware that very few people (including ourselves) are entirely honest all of the time (which in itself is quite a “scary” thought!), and therefore “cheat” in a many relatively small and what we often deemed to be unimportant ways every day. This might involve “keeping” the odd pen or pencil at home supplied by the office, or wearing a “fake brand” watch or pair of sunglasses, for example. But what happens when this tendency to cheat, at least some of the time, grows in frequency or severity? And perhaps even worse in what ways do people tend to cheat, especially at work, which we should all be concerned about?

Albeit much of his research has been mainly amongst his college students and colleagues, the author Dan Ariely has spent several years studying cheating or general dishonesty at work and as the graphic at the top of this article indicates he has concluded that various specific factors increase cheating or general dishonesty while others decrease it (and a few have no affect at all). Let’s therefore look at these factors in more detail, starting with those which seem to increase overall levels of honesty.

Factors which increase overall levels of honesty

Many set-up situations (which often included people taking a test in a room both individually and collectively) were designed by Dan Ariely to see not only when people cheated but also by how much and why? One example of the kind of experiment we can all imagine is when people play golf, for example, especially when they are left to record their own scores without any close supervision. In this example, when Ariely asked 12,000 golfers about dishonesty, they said that they rarely if ever cheat, but claim that just 50% of other golfers cheat to some extent, as a matter of course, at some point during the round. And to the explicit question of “how many golfers do you think would move their ball (when unobserved) by a little bit to get a better “lie” when it is currently in a poor position?” they answered 47%. They were even explicit about how this ball moving would be done – moving it “apparently accidentally” with a club (23%), kicking it (14%) and picking it up and moving it (10%). Of course these are all progressively more purposeful and intentional and different people have different views about what is therefore “tolerable” both to themselves and in regards to what they perceive to be the impact on the community or their peers.

If we look at this golf example, the factors which increased dishonesty are shown on the left of the chart above and included how individuals perceived their peers would act in the same circumstances (culture), seeing others doing the same thing (and getting away with it or even benefitting from it in some way) or generally justifying or rationalizing the behavior in some way (such as “I wasn’t feeling well at the time” or “it’s only this one time”).    

At the other end of the scale, factors which decreased cheating in golf (or increased honesty), shown on the right of the chart above, were fewer according to the research but were nonetheless interesting. Most notably higher levels of close game supervision and scrutiny, stressing the standards (and making people sign or pledge to obey them) and golfers making an effort to be more purposefully honest and transparent at the start of the round were the main contributing factors.

Finally, the research also indicated that a couple of factors which we might have guessed would make a difference in fact had no impact. Firstly this involved the probability of getting caught (the golfers simply estimated this risk ahead of time and other factors overrode any minor fear they may have had). Secondly, the golfers were relatively uninterested at the monetary reward that cheating would bring (so would cheat as much for no tangible gain as they would when there was some tangible reward).

So what does all this mean for general workplace cheating and dishonesty? On the negative side, perhaps first and foremost, it is important to recognize that humans are very social animals and are typically very influenced by the contextual culture of their organization or what people are doing as “the norm” around them. If the culture accepts some level of cheating, many people will slowly start to emulate this behavior. We therefore need to pay very close attention to the role models we are presenting. On the positive side, we can significantly increase overall levels of honesty by not only providing honest behavior role models but by being completely clear and transparent about the honesty standards which should apply and then get people to commit (verbally or in writing) on a regular basis to uphold these standards. Unfortunately, reading the company handbook which may detail some of this is not enough however – these standards need to be stressed regularly and honest role modelling done on a daily and weekly basis to sustain the right kind of climate.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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