Cheating in College Begets Cheating in the Workplace
A new study from San Francisco State University reports that cheaters in college are more tolerant of those who cheat in the workplace. According to the study’s co-author, Foo Nin Ho, “If [students] have this attitude while they’re in school – that attitude unfortunately will carry over to the corporate boardroom.” The study published in the Journal of Marketing Education found that students who were more tolerant of cheating in a classroom also demonstrated an openness to unethical behavior on the job.
One factor as to whether cheating will be tolerated is the presence of two traits: individualism and collectivism. Students who cheat in western cultures generally do so for individual self-advancement (individualism or the pursuit of self-interest). In eastern cultures, it’s more likely to be a group effort at cheating (collectivism) – or at least tolerating it when one in the group cheats. Alternatively, when cheating is deemed inappropriate – it reflects badly on the group – if one person gets caught cheating it reflects badly on everyone in the group.
The rate of students who admit to cheating at least once in their college careers has held steady at somewhere around 75 percent since the first major survey on cheating in higher education in 1963. With an increasingly competitive atmosphere and a culture that is more accepting of cheating than it was in past generations, cheating has become a somewhat expected phenomenon at universities across the country.
College administrators largely seem to have accepted the notion that the blame for cheating lies either at the feet of morally bankrupt students or within the overall campus climate. As a result, their efforts to reduce cheating have focused on creating first-year orientations or seminars on academic integrity, or on instituting deterrent measures like suspensions or expulsions for cheaters who are caught. Quite frankly, this is a misguided attempt to control cheating. First-year orientations and seminars do no good because it won’t change the culture of cheating in colleges.
Who is to blame for the cheating crisis? Some people engage in academic dishonesty because they are dishonest. But recent research into cheating and dishonesty suggests a different conclusion: Most of us are willing to engage in acts of dishonesty under the right circumstances. As behavioral economist Dan Ariely demonstrated in a fascinating series of experiments and reported in his book “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty,” the extent to which people are willing to engage in acts of cheating and dishonesty “depends on the structure of their daily environment.” The structure of that environment proves more influential than an individual’s ethical profile or some general cultural milieu.
What are the causal factors that explain the increased cheating? Here are a few that I have noticed during my thirty-plus years of teaching at the college level.
- Everybody does it. I need to stay competitive.
- The exams are too difficult.
- Professors do not monitor exams: I cheat because I can.
- I need to cheat I need to cheat to get good grades; get a better job.
- Everyone cheats in society; this is the expected standard of behavior.
These reasons are largely rationalizations for unethical conduct. The more compelling reasons are the myriad of ways students can cheat today. It ranges from simply writing out the most essential material in the palm of one’s hands to using a smart phone to receive answers from classmates, and a lot in-between.
The underlying cause of cheating is a changing ethical standard of right and wrong. Today, our actions are viewed through the lens of ethical relativism. Everything is relative to the situation. Cheating occurs because other students cheat and there is a need to keep up. People lie on their resumes to get a better job. Politicians cheat and may even divert funds. Financial executives cheat and even commit fraud with little or no consequences if they get caught.
Enter workplace cheating. Cheaters in school are more likely to cheat in the workplace. How so? Perhaps it’s a matter of stealing someone else’s work. It may not be difficult to access a coworker’s files, download them on personal laptops, and then submit the work as one’s own.
These are potentially destructive behaviors not only because dishonesty is involved but also because it violates the trust between employees’ and other employees, and employees and management. Imagine if your coworker stole your work and handed it in as their own. Just think about the destructive nature of the act and implications for workplace harmony.
It’s not likely the trend of increased cheating will be addressed anytime soon because we have normalized cheating and uncivil behavior in our society. A good first start, however, is to open up about the cultural factors that contribute to cheating and what can be done to reduce cheating by calling it out and punishing the offenders.
Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 5, 2019. Dr. Mintz recently published a book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, that explains how doing the right thing and being a good person can enhance well-being. The book is available on Amazon. Visit his website, sign up for his newsletter, follow him on Facebook and “Like” his page.