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Who Cheats? Most of us, it turns out

It’s an uncomfortable thought, but given certain circumstances, most of us would cheat.

Ron Carucci just wrote about how easily one can cross the line in a Forbes article that featured a conversation with Richard Bistrong. The cheating often involves people who don’t even realize that they’re crossing the line.

Studies have repeatedly shown that most people cheat when asked to self-report their own performance on a task if it means a higher payout. But they only cheat a little bit, enough to gain a little extra benefit, but not so much that they’d feel bad about themselves.

That’s consistent with what I observed early in my career. Lunch among a few colleagues would somehow become a “client” meal, in which actual client names would be scribbled on a receipt and submitted for reimbursement. A colleague admitted he often embellished expenses. A $30 cab ride might turn into $45; a $25 dinner into $40 — a practice my colleague said he learned from watching others.

These small transgressions tended to be committed by those I considered to be good employees, with an otherwise good work ethic.

Those employees didn’t think they had crossed the line. Their actions were just part of the informal culture. And that’s the insidious nature of minor cheating that goes unchecked. It slowly builds up a culture that can eventually set the stage for more serious violations.

But ethics and compliance professionals shouldn’t despair. Here are a few simple ideas to reduce cheating:

  • Make it impossible for employees to forget that even minor cheating is wrong. Communicate this repeatedly via email, newsletters, intranet posts, staff meetings, or other ways that are most effective for employees.
  • Include specific examples in those communications. Point out common types of cheating that have actually occurred, and share real but anonymized cases in which employees have been disciplined.
  • Use “primers” to dampen the temptation to cheat. For example, at the beginning of each expense report, have employees attest to the truthfulness of the information that they are about to submit. Add a picture of an eye to prompt the feeling that the employee is being monitored.

If these tools had been deployed at my previous company, I think they would have made a difference. They still could.


Caveni Wong is the Founder and Principal of Principle Compliance Inc., which designs, builds and maintains ethics and compliance programs for clients with the goal of spreading an ethical corporate culture worldwide. She can be contacted here.

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