Is Your Workplace Encouraging Employees To Cheat?

High-performance pressure needs to be offset with other actions to prevent a “win-at-all-costs” workplace.

Is Your Workplace Encouraging Employees To Cheat?
[Photo: Flickr user Horia Varlan]

Your company prides itself on having a culture of high performers who thrive under pressure. But could that very culture be encouraging employees to cheat?


It just might, according to a new study published in the August 2017 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology. Just look at recent high-profile deception and cheating cases at Wells Fargo and Volkswagen.

Researcher and study coauthor Marie S. Mitchell, associate professor at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, became interested in the subject of cheating behavior years ago when she worked with law firms. “I would hear paralegals who were in law school talking about students going to the law library and tearing out cases so that other students couldn’t be prepared when they got to class,” she says. She became interested in what motivated the students to make themselves look more productive than the other person.

She began working with study coauthor Michael D. Baer, who is now an assistant professor in the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. The two gained access to a Gallup poll and asked, “What are the cheating behaviors you see at work?” They got more than 500 examples, ranging from employees taking credit for others’ work to actually changing production numbers to appear more effective or better at their jobs. Fifty-five percent of respondents saw employees manipulating numbers for self-gain, like falsifying time cards, while 31% were instances of exploiting others, such as taking credit for work or stealing coworkers’ ideas.

A Cheating Climate

The researchers, who also included Maureen L. Ambrose and Robert Folger from the University of Central Florida and Noel F. Palmer from the University of Nebraska–Kearney, found that cheating behavior was more likely to happen in organizations where employees were pressured to perform at a high level, especially when there were punishments for not achieving those levels. Lack of supervisor and other support also contributed to cheating environments.

“The risk factor and the threat is really the explanation for why cheating occurred. It’s that the employees feel the need to protect themselves,” Mitchell says. “What Mike and I found in the study with our coauthors is that self-protection comes out through the motion and through a specific, cognitive mental focus, and it has these basic goggles on or blinders on toward themselves. They get very self-interested and they get angry. Those two things, essentially, explain why they end up cheating.”

Heading Off Cheating

But the researchers say their findings don’t mean that companies need to be soft.


“It’s a really tough balance as a manager because research has demonstrated that if you don’t pressure your employees, their performance stagnates, and then that’s not beneficial for organizations because exerting a bit of pressure is a motivator,” Mitchell says.

Explicitly stating the organization’s expectations with regard to ethical behavior is a critical step. Many organizations don’t overtly state such parameters, which may leave employees feeling like it’s okay to cheat as long as the end result was met, Baer says.

Fostering an environment where employees can safely express their concerns about work demands without fear of retribution allows them to signal when expectations may be beyond their ability to achieve without cheating.

In addition, working with employees to ensure that they’re given stretch goals, but that the goals are still attainable, is useful, Mitchell says.

“For us, the big takeaway is to be careful how you relay what you’re asking for, because our results from this particular paper suggest that employees’ sense of threat that there’s this impending doom that really seems to create this need for self-protection makes them angry, makes them very self-focused, and that causes them to cheat,” she adds. “Perhaps, if [managers] relayed the pressure in a way that is not as threatening, perhaps motivating, that might be able to get them to stretch in a way that’s productive, creative, and ethical.”


About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books.