Are honesty and ethicality stable personality traits? Can you hire people who are more likely to be honest and ethical, and avoid those who are not?

Psychologists have identified a series of characteristics that predict patterns of unethical behavior by employees. At the same time, some people may behave honestly and with great integrity in their dealings with friends and family, but be duplicitous and self-serving at work. What can be done to shift their actions in a more ethical direction?

This page presents what is known about measuring and predicting who will behave honestly and with integrity at work. This research has important implications for hiring new employees. We also cover what can be done to change an organization to bring out current employees’ more ethical tendencies.

Ideas to Apply

Areas of Research

Case Studies

Open Questions

To Learn More


IDEAS TO APPLY (Based on research covered below)

  • Make personality testing a standard part of the interview process. In the hiring process, ask applicants to complete assessments such as the Employee Integrity Index and the Conditional Reasoning Test of Aggression.

  • Leverage internal communications. Within your company publicize data showing that unethical behavior in your organization is rare and prosocial behavior is common.

  • Reward ethical behavior. Develop incentive and promotion systems that reward ethical behavior and discourage unethical behavior.


AREAS OF RESEARCH

  • What are the individual characteristics that predispose employees toward higher versus lower levels of unethical behavior? There are four traits that have received extensive study:

1) Conscientiousness—the tendency to be disciplined, responsible, organized, and industrious—is the most consistent broad personality predictor of lower levels of unethical behavior. Conscientious employees are less likely to steal, sabotage, and shirk. They are also less likely to harm, undermine, and abuse others.

2) There is also evidence that employees with tendencies toward aggression and emotional reactivity are more likely to engage in unethical behavior, especially in response to perceived injustice.

3) “Takers”—who prioritize self-interest over concern for others—tend to engage in more unethical behaviors, whereas other-oriented “givers” focus on taking actions that benefit others, and “matchers” who prefer an even balance of giving and getting are motivated to follow principles of fairness.

4) Approximately 1% of men (and far fewer women) are psychopaths, which means that they are completely lacking in moral emotions. This makes it easy for them to lie, because they feel no shame, embarrassment, or even nervousness when they are caught. Psychopaths are rare, but each one can leave a trail of victims and fraud schemes in his wake. This is why it is so important to check references carefully. Psychopaths can fool people well for short periods of time, but eventually they are found out and they move on to other victims. See Snakes in Suits, by Robert Hare.

  • Can we identify job applicants during the hiring process who are more likely to engage in unethical behavior on the job? The short answer is "yes." We now have several decades of evidence that well-designed integrity tests are powerful predictors of unethical behaviors, and can be relatively hard to cheat. One strategy for limiting faking is to shift from asking job applicants what they would do, and instead ask them to predict what others would do. For example, if we asked job applicants how much merchandise they expect to steal from the organization each month, almost all will say “none.” However, when we ask applicants what percent of employees they believe steal at least $10 worth of merchandise per month from their employers, they often use their own behavior as an anchor point for the estimate. Thieves give higher estimates than good Samaritans.

  • How can we build cultures that support giving rather than taking? First, it turns out to be more important to screen out “takers” than to hire “givers.” One bad apple can spoil a barrel, but one good egg does not easily make a dozen. Second, role modeling is important; employees often view unethical behaviors from peers and leaders as an implicit endorsement that these behaviors are acceptable. To reduce unethical behavior and promote prosocial behaviorsocial proof matters: we need to publicize data that the former is low and the latter is high. Third, when incentive and promotion systems are based solely on individual performance, employees are more willing to focus on their own gains at the expense of others and the organization. When employees are recognized and rewarded for their broader contributions, they become better citizens.


CASE STUDIES

Failures

Successes


OPEN QUESTIONS

  • What are the most effective ways to measure unethical and prosocial behaviors for use in performance evaluation and promotion decisions?

  • What experiences motivate employees to develop more ethical and prosocial values, rather than merely adjusting their behaviors?

  • How can leaders “walk the talk” when it comes to establishing behavioral integrity and creating consistency between espoused and enacted principles?


TO LEARN MORE

Books and Articles

Videos

This page is overseen by resident expert Adam Grant, although other contributors may have added content.
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Miscellaneous Links & References
(This is where other contributors might list relevant links/references they come across)

  • CEOs with military experience are less likely to be involved in fraudulent activity, and less likely to engage in excessive risk taking. (Benmelech & Frydman, 2014)

  • Add research on how guilt-proneness predicts ethical behavior, but shame-proneness does not. Ask Becky Schaumberg.

  • Gregory J. Millman, "The Morning Risk Report: How to Avoid Hiring a Psychopath as CEO," The Wall Street Journal, December 4, 2013. One study of more than 200 executives in management-development and succession-planning programs at seven companies found that this elite group had higher levels of psychopathic traits than the population at large.

  • Melissa Delaney, "How Gamification Helps Local Governments Engage Employees and Citizens," StateTech Magazine, September 30, 2013.

  • Is there research on emotional intelligence leading to better management and ethical outcomes? More trust?

  • Need to add integrity testing research—it has some predictive value.