Dishonesty Flourishes Because We Enable It - InformationWeek

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Dishonesty Flourishes Because We Enable It

When IT holds the keys to our business-critical systems, employee dishonesty can have serious repercussions. Duke professor Dan Ariely says we're wrong about how to keep employees honest.

If your responsibilities include managing budgets, people, or inventory, one of your worst moments is getting that phone call informing you about some type of dishonest behavior. For those of us in large IT shops, the dishonesty runs the gamut--from analysts who use their system access to compare salaries to an employee who got busted for changing records in a property appraisal system to benefit his buddies. As an FBI agent I once worked with used to quip: "The big-money bank robbers don't use a gun; they use a keyboard."

IT employees hold the keys to the treasure rooms, so their honesty or dishonesty is obviously of great interest to us and our organizations. From a societal perspective, one could even argue that in the era of voting machines and complex stock market transactions, IT is the one ring that rules them all.

It's not just about keeping IT personnel from looting our riches or rigging our elections, of course. Rampant, dishonest behavior can lead to a corporate brain drain, as an organization's best and brightest, sick of being part of the Enron Nation, say "to hell with it, I'm not playing anymore."

For all of these reasons, most of us try to support an atmosphere of honesty. We check references, reject resumes with obvious falsehoods, and implement processes that support honest behavior. Turns out, we're probably doing it wrong.

[ Will Microsoft's management practices--more than its competitors or products--be the cause of its decline? See Microsoft A Victim Of Its Own Success. ]

I just finished Duke professor Dan Ariely's latest book, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty," and was wide-eyed at a couple of passages. For example, when people deal with tokens of value instead of actual value (such as poker chips instead of dollars), they cheat more. Ariely discusses the rampant overstating of billable hours in most professional services organizations. A personal example involves the "near money" of frequent flier miles and other loyalty programs, all of which are tracked by the systems IT supports.

For years I've assumed that putting folks into teams would cut down on cheating. But Ariely's experiment-based research identifies something called "altruistic cheating," the cheating someone does because he's working on a team and wants others on the team to get a bonus or promotion or avoid punishment.

Ariely urges readers to leave behind the outmoded "simple model of rational crime" (SMORC), which assumes that when there's a favorable risk-benefit ratio to dishonest acts, such acts will be committed, and when there isn't a favorable risk-benefit, they won't be committed. Ariely buries that theory through the experiments he details in the book.

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Organizations must also understand the forces that increase dishonesty. Those include basics such as hunger and fatigue from working on projects late at night without a company-supplied dinner.

Dishonesty is contagious. If it's well known in your organization that individuals are stealing a competitor's secrets, or if you're at one of those professional services organizations that regularly overstates billable hours, don't expect that the rest of employee behavior will be a model of honesty. The Talmud compares keeping bad company with hanging around in a tannery--the stink will stay with you. (But quoting the Talmud or your mom or scoutmaster at a meeting probably won't be as effective as pointing to serious behavioral science, and for that we can thank Ariely.)

When small dishonest acts accumulate, individuals start feeling what Ariely calls the "what the hell" factor. That is, once you've committed a bunch of dishonest acts, you sort of go with it, and they get bigger.

I had an email conversation with Ariely regarding Scott Thompson, the former Yahoo CEO who claimed (falsely) that he had a degree from Stanford. I wondered what would happen if I didn't correct the folks who refer to me in email as "Dr. Feldman." Might I one day be listed as such on a conference brochure and then not correct the organizers because I didn't want to cause them grief? Might someone then ask me where I had gotten my PhD? Would I make something up and watch it snowball after a colleague overheard the conversation?

If someone told me that I would act this dishonestly, I would argue against that notion vigorously, but wouldn't we all? Trouble is, I could see it happening to someone else, which--to be (honestly) honest--probably means it could happen to me.

Ariely agrees that "small slips that get larger over time are the main problem," and that this may well have been the case with Thompson. My point: It could happen to any of us if we don't watch the small stuff.

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User Rank: Ninja
7/26/2012 | 11:34:13 AM
re: Dishonesty Flourishes Because We Enable It
I think the best approach to curb dishonesty is to have IT workers fully engaged in the business, the processes, the decisions, well, everything. And have management talk to, listen to, and follow up on what IT folks have to say, even the six week intern. Build up trust and instantly reward people for their work, for their ideas, and yes, for the fact that they did not cheat.
There will still be cheaters, but they rarely cheat without reason. They want more money (maybe they really do not get paid enough?), they want to do it their way (maybe it is too complicated and takes too long to get a decision made?), or they stopped caring (because management stopped caring about them long ago).
If companies want the best from their employees then treat them the best way possible. So no 80 hour work weeks on a regular basis, no hire & fire, no cutting salaries and benefits, and no H1-B or offshoring to make clear who's boss. And yes, show up at your DB admin's kids baseball game, buy a dozen donuts once in a while, let folks go to the doctor or get oil changes for their cars during work time, and show up when you promised to take part in the department's Cribbage league.
User Rank: Strategist
7/25/2012 | 1:31:24 PM
re: Dishonesty Flourishes Because We Enable It
I don't know which I like better Buffet or Yogi Berra - they both have some great, relevant one liners. Thanks.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/24/2012 | 6:56:56 PM
re: Dishonesty Flourishes Because We Enable It
In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don't have the first, the other two will kill you.
-- Warren Buffet
User Rank: Strategist
7/24/2012 | 6:47:57 PM
re: Dishonesty Flourishes Because We Enable It
Good article.

Since your quoted the Talmud, I'll quote the Bible: "The person faithful in what is least is faithful also in much, and the person unrighteous in what is least is unrighteous also in much." -Luke 16:10.
User Rank: Author
7/24/2012 | 1:06:17 PM
re: Dishonesty Flourishes Because We Enable It
I have seen "what the hell" factor in action; always wonder what these folks think will happen when the truth comes out. Especially ugly are the people who repeatedly apply this notion to claiming credit for others' work- - Laurianne McLaughlin
User Rank: Apprentice
7/24/2012 | 1:55:57 AM
re: Dishonesty Flourishes Because We Enable It
This is not an individual issue. More and more we find people in positions of trust who shamelessly exploit that trust for personal enrichment, who see no problem with selling their access and their trust to the highest bidder for more money, a misplaced sense of entitlement, or a desire for childish revenge. It sounds simplistic to admit it, but we have a crisis of character. We are witnessing the result of two generations of slow degeneration in the sense of what it means to be a moral and upright individual. The entire concept has been relegated to the realm of impossible and impractical idealism, the sort of thing you grow out of as you learn how to screw people, corporations, entire states or the nation.

In the absence of any sense of duty or obligation to the United States, or indeed any organization higher than one's immediate family, people have no reason not to exploit the trust and access to secure information and funds granted them. Morality is something that's preached at them; honesty is being able to make the judge and jury believe you have it; civilization is from Sid Meier. There is no longer a sense that we all have an obligation to ourselves and each other to the truth, or to ideals of freedom, responsibility and the future that form the basis for American civilization. This is going to cost us, because a nation of brigands and pirates is vulnerable to the first enemy with better organization and loyalty. They don't have to be more moral than we are; they just have to have people willing to man the guns despite the danger. They'll easily sink any nation whose people rely exclusively on "I've got mine, every man for himself."

Today the only people preaching 'morality' are goofball Dominionist Christians whose agenda is distinctly anti-American and anti-democratic. We have no religious or social leaders of any stature, and no one is speaking about a need for a higher sense of responsibility to our society and our future -- except charlatans who want you to buy their gold, or their books, or their twelve-DVD lecture series. The entire concept of honesty and self-respect and obligation to our civilization has become a joke, something that isn't real, or has the same bearing on modern life as Spongebob Squarepants or Santa Claus. You cannot believe how corrosive this is to the very idea of America.

There is no road out of Hell. We need as a people to confront the fact that we have no sense of civil obligation any more, no concept of what it means to be honest and upright in all things, no idea what 'integrity' might mean beyond the appearance of being trustworthy. A vile sense that no one stands for anything but their own enrichment, not just in spite of but directly through exploiting other people. A nation so constituted cannot stand. It's going to be one drive-by and home invasion and mortgage fraud after another until the only people left are the ones using weapons to "earn" their living and the defended communities of those who don't want to live by the gun. Sort of like sixth-century Europe without the Catholic Church or present-day Afghanistan and Iraq.

This past week we lost Steven Covey, revered in the business world but a man whose own studies of self-help works of the 20th Century revealed to him that all were invested in getting the individual to improve himself at the expense of everyone else around them. He championed a different idea, one of the individual helping to build a society with higher ideals and stronger principles than self-aggrandizement. We are going to need more of him if we are to stop the rush to barbarism. Because despite our iPhones and Hadoop-powered infrastructure and hybrid electric cars, we are moving into an era where power alone has any currency with people. You are going to be met with force, at the ballot box, at the bank, in the street, and you are going to be facing people who have embraced the gunfighter's code that the only one who wins is the one drawing faster, shooting sooner, and doesn't care if it's your back. That's the way you win. The only way you win. The only way you win. The only way you win.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/23/2012 | 7:26:23 PM
re: Dishonesty Flourishes Because We Enable It
Here lies the golden rule be honest to others and to yourself. It is a good practice to not get on the habit of not lying, and then you have to remember the lies that you have told and who they have told and so on and so on... In my personal experience it has always been better with telling the truth the first time rather than lying. The article makes a valid point if a person gets away with lying the first time most likely they will repeat their actions and probably will get bolder with their actions as time goes on and they continue to get away with the lies.
The fact that these people who could potentially be lying are your employees and could affect the way your business is viewed and thought of by internal employees. If a business gets caught in a lie it is far worse, in my opinion than if they had just been honest about their mistakes to begin with. Now they are caught in a lie which is not good face for business and it is very hard for a business to regain a customerG«÷s trust after it has been broken with lies, the customer feels taken advantage of or worse a sucker. Just be honest and accept the consequences of your
actions good or bad!

Paul Sprague
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