Dishonesty and the Power of Knowing Who Gets Hurt

Early in my career, I once held a position at a real estate company where one of the assistants had left to deposit a company check and after a few weeks, never returned to work. Ever. The check was cashed and the money was lost to us. I remember being totally surprised by her actions—especially since she had worked with us for some time and we developed what I thought was a trustworthy relationship.

Though not the same as cashing checks but equally foreboding for your organizational culture, is the growth of non-cash corporate theft. According to a recent study, workplace pilfering is on the rise. A forensic accounting firm reported that theft of non-cash property—ranging from a single pencil to a pallet of them—climbed from 10.6 percent of corporate-theft losses in 2002 to 21 percent in 2018. The firm also said that managers consistently order up to 20 percent more supplies than are necessary, to compensate for what employees take.

I recently saw an article that asked the question, “Are we intuitively honest or dishonest?” Collective evidence revealed that people are intuitively dishonest only when it does not harm victims they could identify. For example, if someone receives too much change in return for the purchase of a coffee, they are more likely to pocket the surplus if they are at a large chain. However, when a patron buys coffee from a street vendor, the temptation to keep the change is lower.

In the first instance, the customer is clearly considering a faceless and deep corporate pocket, whereas the second patron who buys from a local vendor visualizes taking money from this vendor. The silver lining of this news is that people intuitively care about others they can easily identify. Honesty could be promoted by making the negative consequences of dishonesty more personally compelling.

A global study came to a similar conclusion when researchers dropped off more than 17,000 wallets in 40 countries over a two-year period. Some contained about $13 while others only held identification and a key. As results came in, the same outcomes surfaced. People were more likely to report lost wallets with money than those without. And wallets with more money ($100) were returned at even a higher rate.   

Researchers concluded that a primary reason people returned the wallets was they identified with how the person who lost the wallet might be feeling. The study’s lead author, Alain Cohn, with University of Michigan said the study suggests that “there might be potential to promote honest behavior, first, by making the harm that your behavior can impose on other people more salient.”

In the workplace, Cohn suggests implementing practices like having people sign a statement promising truthfulness before they report their car mileage, rather than after so they are less likely to deceive themselves. I would add that since most people act more honorably when they identify with who’s impacted by dishonesty, leaders can create clarity around those who are positively affected when employees behave with transparency. Managers should convey how budgets fair better and salary lines are protected when the company can avoid unexplained shortages and lost property.

Dishonesty in the workplace is a symptom of a bigger problem with our cultures, but one that can be corrected if you focus on messaging about peers who are directly affected by employees’ negative behavior. Look for ways you can reinforce and inspire positive choices and their connection to actual people in your company. Point out that while the coffers may seem impervious to misguided behaviors here and there, they add up to larger issues that affect workplace performance, trust and the culture you’ve worked so hard to cultivate.

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