Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.

We all agree to this in principle, and also believe that most of us demonstrate high levels of integrity. What is integrity? It is the practice of being honest and consistently adhering to an ethical code. A sense of what’s right and what’s not.

But research shows that people are more honest when they know they’re being watched. A study found that installing theft-detection software in restaurants led to a 7% revenue increase, on average. Not because people were caught stealing. Rather, it was from the changed behavior of the employees, who knew they were being monitored. They were more accountable. And why just restaurant folks, we all exhibit such behaviors. Think about yourself in the following scenarios:

  • Do you return the grocery cart, or do you leave it in the parking lot hoping it doesn’t hit a car?
  • When eating chocolate, do you throw the wrapper on the streets, or do you carry it back home?
  • If you’re late for a meeting because you didn’t track time and forgot about it, do you give the real reason, or make up a story about another meeting that ran long?

Many of us might have indulged in behaviors that aren’t exactly honest. What does this mean for the workplace?

Organizations have many policies and processes in place to deter actions that are out of integrity – fraud, sexual misconduct, money laundering, misuse of data, etc. Yet, unethical practices continue. Some even become headlines. In a study, 81% of executives reported that codes of conduct were in place, yet over half of the respondents did not believe that the people who breached them were penalized. What is the impact of this on organizations?

  1. It hurts performance. The reason: the mental and emotional stress of lying and the fear of getting caught takes up mind space, leaving little room for focus. This was proved in an experiment where two teams were competing by answering a questionnaire. At the end, the first group was asked to lie to the conductor about their score, increasing it from 67% to 80%. The second group reported the true score of 67%. In the next round of tests, the participants in the first group scored 20% lower than the second team.
  2. It increases turnover. Those who are trying to be honest often leave work cultures where misconduct is not corrected. There is dissatisfaction and a feeling that behaviors that are out of integrity are benefitting. Given this value mismatch, their work suffers, absenteeism increases, and eventually, they leave. Robert Cialdini’s research shows this trend.
  3. It affects the frequency of misconduct. It is probably safe to assume that if malpractices exist, they are likely to increase. Why? If people get the chance to reflect on their misconduct, the gap between their values and their behavior might be huge. As a result, they will try to rationalize and justify their behavior, thus engaging in more practices that are out of integrity such that it brings legitimacy to their other offenses. It is counterintuitive but true.

The impact of dishonesty of different degrees is grim. Even when being watched, some of us continue to engage in less than ethical behavior. Wondering if there are corrective measures? Let’s explore that in the next post.

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