There’s a level of “performance pressure” that encourages employees to adopt lying and cheating tactics, new research says.
Ever lied about what you’ve been doing at work, in order to look productive? Or exaggerated how long a project took in order to impress? How about making up an excuse to avoid being punished for incomplete work, or arriving late and not reporting it?
While that kind of cheating is something we’re all familiar with (and have probably been guilty of on at least one occasion) it’s not the pointier end of the problem. Volkswagen employees’ attempts to cheat emissions standards recently had the company agreeing to a $5.7 billion settlement. Closer to home, the bank scandals Australia has been watching unfold are examples of cheating that can undermine a whole industry’s standing.
So what’s the root cause of employee cheating?
In the popular imagination, we tend to think it’s inherent selfishness. A trait we associate with people who don’t care about others, so long as they themselves look good. We assume the end-goal of cheating is self-enrichment. But new research, published in the journal Applied Psychology, suggests that the main motivation for many might be self-protection.
Angry enough to lie
It’s fair to say pretty much every job has a minimum performance expectation – a level you have to meet if you want to keep your role. A tempting way of getting increased performance from employees is to raise that minimum level, and tie their job retention to high performance standards.
The authors of the research give this minimum level the name “performance pressure” and distinguish it from “time pressures” and “work overload”. Importantly, they say it’s subjective. It’s the employees perception that job security is tied to performance which is important, not the reality. They also say that it’s the main cause of workplace cheating.
So what’s actually going through a staff member’s head when they feel high performance pressure? Two things, a “hot” and a “cold” reaction. The hot reaction arrives in the form of angry: “how can I possibly be expected to get all this done!?” The cold reaction is self-serving thoughts: the kind that begin, “well if that’s the way it’s going to be, I’ll just have to…”
The end result is that they will lie about how productive they have been. They stop thinking like staff on a mission to deliver results, and begin acting like cornered animals – a far cry from the office braggart.
(Want to know about the other side of the coin, where organisations protect their cheating employees? Read our article.)
The consequences for HR
Employee cheating has a direct effect on an organisation’s bottom line (just look at the payouts Australian banks have had to make). But for HR a big problem with cheating is the impact on analytics. How can you have accurate performance management stats when the information you have is falsified?
So what can be done to discourage cheating in your own workplace? Here are some management tips drawn from the research’s conclusions:
- Highlight ethical role models, because previous research suggests leaders who walk their talk exert a strong force in reducing cheating behaviour.
- Have strong codes of conduct, as they may reduce the need to self-protect.
- Find a balance between “meet these expectations” and “do the best you can”.
- Be careful about tying job security with performance outcomes