Trustworthiness isn’t just a ‘nice-to-have’ soft skill – it’s a hard must to ward against dishonesty in the workplace. But what should you do if things aren’t on the straight and narrow?
HR is usually seen as the bastion of good behaviour in the workplace – after all, the human resources department is often responsible for creating and implementing codes of conduct that fight dishonesty in the workplace. Which is why it was such a shock when a recent survey from the UK found that human resources was ranked as the most dishonest profession by respondents. What gives?!
The survey, conducted by Webexpenses, looked at acts of dishonesty in the workplace such as swiping office supplies or exaggerating expense reports. According to their research, human resources and information technology workers are the most likely to lie at work. Of those surveyed, 39 per cent of people working in human resources admitted to some act of dishonesty in the workplace.
Reasons for this behaviour ranged from ‘all the kids are doing it’, to dishonest managers who bend the rules as well, knowing they won’t get caught, and even because they felt undervalued at work.
Are these findings fair? “Human resources workers are at least the most likely to own up when asked outright if they were dishonest in the workplace,” says Webexpenses CEO Adam Grant. If that’s the case, can we take these findings seriously?
Obviously, any survey that relies on people to report their own dishonesty needs to be taken with a grain of salt, but it does raise questions about dishonesty in the workplace, why it happens and how you can build a more honest and open culture.
This comes on the heels of another survey that listed the most and least ethical sectors in Australia. The Governance Institute of Australia rates the ethical performance of major parts of the economy, including social services, government, not-for-profits, corporations and media. It found that the finance sector (which has taken a hit in recent years thanks to growing scrutiny over executive remuneration and misconduct from employees, some of which – as we have previously reported – were HR professionals) are perceived as the least ethical sectors; media, big business and politicians didn’t fare well, either.
In contrast, sectors dealing in social services such as health and not-for-profits were viewed as the most honest and trustworthy sectors. Teachers earned their apple, with respondents saying this was the most ethical profession.
The role of leadership in promoting ethical conduct in the business sector is viewed as crucial by 82 per cent of Australians, says Steven Burrell, CEO of the Governance Institute. “These leaders are seen to have the key role in influencing ethical behaviour, but neither they nor their organisations are perceived to be very ethical.”
Does the onus fall solely on leaders and human resources to create an honest workplace? Or does the buck stop with employees? The answer is both.
What to do about dishonesty in the workplace
There is a strong business case for weeding out dishonesty in the workplace. Fortune’s yearly “100 Best Companies to Work For” looks at trust and honesty between managers and employees as criteria to determine the winners. And with good reason – their research shows that “trust between managers and employees is the primary defining characteristic of the very best workplaces.”
Besides the scenario of someone siphoning money, there are other risks associated with dishonesty: decreased morale and productivity, suspicion among co-workers, and spillover effects such as damage to employer brand and reputation.
How can you cultivate trust and honesty within teams, between employees and managers, and company-wide? It starts with intent and respect, writes Douglas Conant, former CEO of Campbell and president of Nabisco Food, in an article for Harvard Business Review.
Intent is fundamental motive and agenda, and Conant urges leaders to state them on the record. This creates transparency and credibility, he says, and it creates a specific and observable measure for gauging trustworthiness.
The second part of the equation is respect, which he says should be demonstrated to all stakeholders. “It’s not enough to say you respect people’s feedback or contributions,” he says. “You have to show it … Repeatedly.”
These sentiments are echoed by a 2015 study on trust in the workplace from Interaction Associates. Researchers asked respondents to pick their top trust-building behaviours.
Employees responded with:
- Ask for input on decisions that affect the employee.
- Give the employee background info so they can understand decisions.
- Set the employee up for success with learning and resources.
- Admit mistakes.
- Don’t punish employees for raising issues (aka don’t shoot the messenger).
The key takeaway is that greater transparency and communication from leaders results in greater levels of trust. For direct reports to build trust with their supervisor, it’s the same song.
- Keep managers up-to-date on the status of work that is not yet completed.
- Ask clarifying questions when assigned tasks.
- Make suggestions about improvements to the company, department and/or team.
- Admit mistakes promptly.
- Listen and respond to feedback.