You’re Dishonest (And So Is Everyone Else)

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Author David Towler

Dishonesty in the workplace can be minimized through better hiring practices.

Have you ever told a lie? If you said ‘no’ then you’re a liar.

We’ve all been lied to. We’ve all lied to others and to ourselves and we lie for all kinds of reasons. Politicians lie, sports heroes lie, big businesses lie, parents lie and kids lie. Everyone lies, all the time, to everyone, every day - and we all know it. Everybody is a bit dishonest. It’s a part of human nature and it’s a part of our DNA due to evolution and psychological factors. Lying is a survival technique that we’re very adept at using. It’s instinctual and inescapable. We lie and we cheat. It’s what we do. Most of us are only little dishonest (we speed, we tell white lies or fudge our taxes a bit) but some of us are much more prone to it than others. At the same time, however, we all expect integrity and honesty from others and we positively demand it from our politicians, co-workers, employers and spouses. (I never said that human beings were rational!)

Lying about how someone looks in order to spare their feelings or doing 60 MPH in a 55 zone is a lot different from cheating investors out of millions with a Ponzi scheme! In the workplace, dishonest employees are a serious and costly problem. Hiring someone who’s not trustworthy can be one of the costliest mistakes an employer can make. They can rob you blind, cost you customers and destroy reputations. This isn’t news but if practically everyone’s dishonest what can you do to protect yourself?

There’s no way to ever eliminate dishonesty in the workplace completely but there are ways to significantly minimize your risk by screening out and not hiring people who are more likely to be dishonest. It’s also easy and inexpensive through the use of pre-employment integrity tests.

But why are we all like this in the first place?

A fascinating documentary called (Dis)honesty: The Truth About Lies, featuring Dr. Dan Ariely a Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and based on his New York Times bestseller “The Honest Truth about Dishonesty” delves deeply into the complex world of lying and why we do it. According to Dr. Ariely, it’s very simple. He says, “We want to benefit selfishly from being dishonest.”

Ariely says that in order to get away with lying about things we justify our bad behaviour to ourselves in dozens of ways. Honesty (or the lack thereof) is all about rationalizing and our reasons often include:

• Everybody does it
• Conflicts of interest
• I’m not hurting anyone
• Lying for others
• Lack of supervision
• Social norms
• Distance from the crime
• Self deception

If we believe that everyone else is being as dishonest as we are then it’s easier for us to be ok with lying and we actually lie or cheat to a higher degree. In the workplace employee theft is a huge and difficult problem to guard against. Dishonesty is ubiquitous and there’s no escaping it, but the numbers tell the real story.

Do you remember Nick Leeson? In 1995 he singlehandedly cost Barings Bank over a billion dollars in losses, resulting in the collapse of the 233 year old institution. Just one dishonest employee absolutely wiped them out of existence, literally overnight. Luckily there aren’t many Nick Leeson’s around but there are millions of people who are only stealing a little bit every day. A million people whose fraudulent behaviours each cost only $1000 in loses a year still amounts to a billion dollars in total.

The Lance Armstrong’s, Bernie Madoff’s, Enron’s, Rob Ford’s and Nick Leeson’s of the world make the news because they’re big cheaters who told big lies and committed big crimes. The majority of us only lie and cheat a little but there are millions of us and only a few Bernie Madoff’s. It’s everyday people who actually do much more damage to the economy, their employers and to each other than the big cheaters could ever do. We nickel and dime each other, our employers and the country to death and the costs are staggering. The IRS is cheated out of 15% of its revenues every year. US insurance fraud is estimated at $40 Billion a year. Healthcare scams cost the US $200 Billion a year; and the more we see others cheating, the more normal it becomes and the more we engage in cheating ourselves. You’re not likely to hire a Nick Leeson who will lay a deathblow to your company singlehandedly but a thousand cuts inflicted by just a few dishonest employees will leave you just as dead.

This all makes for interesting classroom or boardroom discussion but how does knowing any of this help us when hiring people? It helps by reminding us to never drop our guard and it teaches us what to watch out for. If you know what to look for then you can identify the high risk people from the rest more often. There are many pre-screening tests available to employers that will help them identify who is more likely to be dishonest.

Integrity tests provide extremely accurate insights into how people will behave in the future based upon how they behave today. Factors like conscientiousness and agreeableness are just two known predictors of the way people’s moral compasses are pointing. They’ve been used for years. They’re reliable and accurate and they really work. Tools like the Applicant Review, the Applicant Risk Profiler, the Counterproductive Behaviour Index or the Employee Reliability Inventory can help employers identify the people who are most likely to steal, behave badly or be big problems down the road.

Employers who aren’t screening for honesty have no idea whether their applicants will be trustworthy or whether they’ll embezzle from them first chance they get. Just because everyone’s dishonest doesn’t mean that one can’t or shouldn’t be trying to avoid the worst of the bunch. Why risk giving the keys to the store to someone who is just waiting to rob you blind?

It happens all the time but it doesn’t have to. If you’re not even asking the question then you can’t possibly know the answer. Honesty tests are cheap and effective and everyone should be taking advantage of them. Anyone who has ever fired someone for theft already wishes that they had.

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The full (Dis)Honesty documentary can be viewed online here - Dishonesty: The Truth About Lies

Additional reading:

U.S. Office Of Personnel Management - Assessment & Selection - Integrity/Honesty Tests: Integrity & Honest Tests




David Towler is President of Creative Organizational Design, a firm offering almost 40 years of expertise specializing in employee assessments and which has over 2000 different product titles available. Please send comments about this article to dtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

Re-printable with permission.