Performance Pressure May Lead Employees to Cheat

Why do employees cheat? Too much pressure, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Georgia found that high-pressure expectations in the workplace lead to unethical behavior.

Volkswagen did it to pass emissions tests. Wells Fargo did it to squeeze more money from their customers. Some school districts have done it to boost their standardized test scores.

Workplace cheating is a real phenomenon, and the new research explains how it starts and how employers can help prevent it, according to Dr. Marie Mitchell, an associate professor of management in University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.

“It’s the desire for self-protection that primarily causes employees to cheat,” she explained. “Employees want to look valuable and productive, especially if they think their job is at risk.”

When the researchers examined performance pressure in the workplace and the behaviors that result from it, they found that when employees feel their job depends on meeting high benchmarks, some cheat 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 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, she said.

That perception leads to anger, which in turn leads to unethical behavior, she explained. 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.”

For the new study, the researchers devised three studies. The first created a measure of workplace cheating behavior through a nationwide survey that asked participants about cheating behavior at work, including what it is and if they’d seen it.

The second and third studies were time-separated field surveys in which employees were asked about their performance pressure at one point in time, then were asked about their feelings and perceptions of the pressure and their cheating behaviors about a month later.

The findings led to a breakthrough, according to Mitchell.

The key is for managers to understand the potential threat of performance pressure to employees, she said. 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 was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Source: University of Georgia

Photo: Marie Mitchell and her co-authors found that when employees feel their job depends on meeting high benchmarks, some fudge results in order to stay employed. Credit: UGA.