Dishonesty in the workplace covers a range of activities and the target can be the employer or people outside the organisation. At the internal level, it may, for example, include petty theft, pilfering or submission of false travel expenses.

At the external level, it can encompass corruption in various forms, such as the taking of bribes or using one's position to exploit clients or customers.

Research suggests that employees are more inclined to take advantage of large corporations because the impact of the loss is spread thinner and feelings of guilt are minimised. The same employees, in most respects, are model citizens who would not dream of cheating another individual on an ordinary day.

Cognitive dissonance

In the 1950s, psychologist Leon Festinger identified the cognitive dissonance syndrome. Cognitive dissonance occurs when there is a fundamental incompatibility between an individual's attitude and their desired behaviour.

In contemplating a dishonest act, most people are likely to experience some feelings of guilt. In other words, there is an incompatibility between their intended actions and their feelings. To resolve this, they justify their behaviour by shifting their focus on the victim. In other words, the victim is blamed for his mishap.

This was demonstrated when a London-based television company hid video cameras and microphones in cars before they were taken for servicing. In many instances, mechanics were found to have deliberately damaged the cars so they could charge the customer for additional repairs.

The mechanics were also more likely to damage the expensive cars. They reduced their levels of dissonance between their consciences and dishonest acts by rationalising that owners of these cars, being affluent, were able to absorb the higher costs of damage.

Feeling frustrated

Employees do not commit acts of dishonesty just for financial gain. The reasons are varied and complex. It can be an expression of dissatisfaction for being underpaid or taken for granted.

Sometimes, employees can resort to dishonesty as a way of getting themselves out of a sticky situation. In 1994, Barings bank trader Nick Leeson resorted to fraudulent accounting procedures to conceal the losses he had incurred.

Dishonesty can also be used to relieve boredom or create a sense of challenge or excitement, particularly in jobs where there is limited stimulation or where employees feel they are being under-utilised.

The other side

In Gerald Mars' book, Cheats At Work, published in 1994, he gave an interesting insight into how various working practices and group norms can cultivate different forms of dishonest behaviour.

Mars cited a minority of London taxi drivers who regularly overcharged their passengers. Many unsuspecting tourists arriving at one of the central London rail terminals were literally "taken for a ride" and charged as much as eight times the standard fare.

Mars observed that their acts tended to be individualistic, random and opportunistic. They were rarely premeditated and partly influenced by the high degree of autonomy taxi drivers enjoy.

Dishonesty comes in many guises. Some time ago, I attended a promotional seminar in South-east Asia conducted by a foreign university professor. Various misrepresentations and omissions were made by the professor as he related the standing of his institution in the country to the audience.

To me, this is a severe transgression as his dishonesty was facilitated by his professional status. Most of us are inclined to place greater trust in representations made by a university professor than a chance encounter with a London taxi driver.

Preventive measures

Dishonesty is closely linked to self-perception and self-esteem. Hence, employers are recognising the increasing importance of paying attention to factors such as job design and empowerment.

More organisations are also investing in new high-tech surveillance methods to curb dishonesty. Although preventive measures are often necessary, organisations also need to foster a sense of involvement and mutual trust in their employees.