It can happen in the branch office or the boardroom. Volkswagen did it to pass emissions tests. Wells Fargo did it to squeeze more profits from their customers. Some school districts have it done it to boost their standardized test scores. Workplace cheating is a real phenomenon and new research from the University of Georgia explains how it starts — and how employers can help prevent it.
“It’s the desire for self-protection that primarily causes employees to cheat,” said Marie Mitchell, an associate professor of management in UGA’s Terry College of Business. “Employees want to look valuable and productive, especially if they think their job is at risk.”
In a recently published paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Mitchell and her co-authors examined performance pressure in the workplace and the behaviors that result from it. They found when employees feel their job depends on meeting high benchmarks, some fudge results.
For example, when Wells Fargo employees were told to meet new goals that included opening sky-high numbers of new accounts, thousands began to open fraudulent accounts in order to meet their quotas. Wells Fargo was fined $185 million in 2016 and publicly scorned as a result. Similar scenarios can play out across all industries.
“We’ve seen it in finance, we’ve seen it with educators and test scores, we’ve seen it in sports, it’s everywhere,” she said. “Performance pressure elicits cheating when employees feel threatened.” This is especially true when employees feel they cannot meet expectations any other way. That perception leads to anger, which in turn leads to unethical behavior, Mitchell said.
The key to prevent workplace cheating, according to Mitchell’s research, is for managers to understand the potential threat of performance pressure to employees. If they coach employees on how to view pressure as non-threatening and focus on how to enhance performance ethically, cheating may be prevented.
“It could be that if you pair performance pressure with ethical standards and give employees the right kind of assurance within the workplace, it can actually motivate great performance,” she said. “There have been many scholars who have argued that you need to stretch your employees because it motivates them, makes them step outside of their normal boxes and be more creative. Our research says that it could, but it also might cause them to act unethically.”
The paper, “Cheating Under Pressure: A Self-Protection Model of Workplace Cheating Behavior,” was co-authored by Michael D. Baer of Arizona State University, Maureen L. Ambrose and Robert Folger of the University of Central Florida and Noel F. Palmer of the University of Nebraska-Kearney.