The team examined performance pressure in the workplace and the behaviours that result from it.
Turns out, high-pressure expectations lead to unethical behaviour.
Workplace cheating is a real and troublesome phenomenon, and new research from the University of Georgia explained how it starts and how employers can help prevent it.
"It's the desire for self-protection that primarily causes employees to cheat," said co-author Marie Mitchell. "Employees want to look valuable and productive, especially if they think their job is at risk."
The team examined performance pressure in the workplace and the behaviours that result from it. They found when employees feel their job depends on meeting high benchmarks, some fudge results in order to stay employed.
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, Mitchell said.
"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. Even though there is the potential of getting a good payoff if they heighten their performance, there's also significant awareness that if they don't, their job is going to be at risk."
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. This crucible of pressure and anger causes employees to focus on doing what is beneficial to them, even if it harms others.
"Angry and self-serving employees turn to cheating to meet performance demands. It's understandable," Mitchell said. "There's a cycle in which nothing is ever good enough today. Even if you set records last month, you may get told to break them again this month. People get angry about that, and their self-protective reflex is elicited almost subconsciously."
The findings led to a breakthrough. The key, Mitchell said, 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 study is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.