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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2017
A New Reason to Avoid Organizational Dishonesty
With Robert B. Cialdini, PhD
Bradley Cannon, Psi Chi Writer/Journal Managing Editor
View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

According to Dr. Robert Cialdini, a common message given to dissuade leaders of organizations from dishonest behavior is to simply say, “It’s immoral, so don’t do it.” Although true, he explains, this argument only has a marginal impact on executives who feel that it is acceptable for them to be dishonest in order to bolster the profits of their organization.
Another message traditionally given to organization leaders is that, “If you are caught in dishonest behavior, there will be negative consequences to your profits because people will not want to do business with you.” Dr. Cialdini believes this to be true too. However, people who commit violations don’t expect to be caught. Otherwise, they wouldn’t engage in the violation in the first place.
An expert in the psychology of influence, the limitations of these two arguments spurred him to search for a new reason to dissuade leaders from organizational dishonesty. This new argument, supported by his research, warns executives that organizational dishonesty also has large economic consequences, even if the organization’s dishonesty is never caught by regulators or the public. In today’s interview, he discusses the many negative effects to watch out for and discusses strategies to prevent organizations from becoming dishonest.
Introducing Dr. Cialdini
Dr. Cialdini is professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University. He received his PhD from the University of North Carolina and postdoctoral training at Columbia University. Dr. Cialdini is the author of several books including Influence: Science and Practice, which has sold more than three million copies.
Among Cialdini’s notable contributions are his six principles of influence. These principles include reciprocity (i.e., the obligation to repay others), commitment and consistency (i.e., the need for internal personal alignment), social proof (i.e., the tendency to do what others do), authority (i.e., the desire to follow expert opinion), liking (i.e., the power of interpersonal rapport), and scarcity (i.e., that people want what they cannot have). He has found numerous other nuances of influence too. For example, his latest book, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, reveals what a communicator can do in the moment before sending a message to increase the likelihood that the audience will be open and receptive to it.
Whenever Dr. Cialdini gives lectures on these six principles, he says, someone in the audience almost always raises the following question: “How do we use this information ethically, and what happens if people use these strategies in a dishonest way?”
This, he says, got him thinking about the culture of dishonest organizations and how research could be used to answer why these principles of influence should always be used in ethical ways. He says, “I think one important feature of research on dishonest organizations is, if we can publicize the research and convince organizations that it is not in their economic interests to behave in a dishonest way, we can increase the trust levels in our society. This is very important because trust has been declining in our society for a number of years now, which leads to all kinds of negative psychological and personal consequences.”
Effects of Organizational Dishonesty
Consider this example: A neighbor once sat down beside Dr. Cialdini on an exercise bike in a local gym. It was morning, at an hour when the man would normally have been at work. During their conversation, the man said that he had recently quit his job.
You quit?” Dr. Cialdini asked.
“Yeah, I quit,” the man said. “I couldn’t take the pressure to be dishonest with our customers and clients, so I just had to leave.”
This is only one of many risks that dishonest organizations face: that some of their most honest and brightest employees might quit if they can’t abide by being pushed in directions that violate their self-confidence and their preferred ways of being. As Dr. Cialdini explains, “Consequences like this are very damaging to a dishonest organization’s bottom line. And when more honest individuals depart, what’s left in the organization is a precipitate of dishonest employees who are then more likely to be comfortable with cheating. These people will likely cheat the organization too. They’ll be the kind of people who will
  • take sick days when they are not sick,
  • pad expense accounts,
  • steal equipment from the organization, and
  • run under-the-table deals with venders and customers, and so on.”
These effects hold true across a wide-range of organizations. He says, “We did a nation-wide survey in which we asked individuals to report to us about the current organization they were in. And we did another where we asked them about the previous organization they were in. We found that there were regrettable levels of dishonesty across various forms of commercial and noncommercial organizations.”
How It Starts
Dr. Cialdini highlights the following two reasons for organizational dishonesty to appear. “The first is that some people are simply more disposed toward dishonesty than other people. This tends to be the case across the various settings of their lives. There is good research to show that the trait of dishonesty is not specific to a particular set of circumstances, but seems to manifest itself across settings and situations. So sometimes when these individuals enter an organization, their tendency toward dishonesty causes them to become less than ethical in their dealings within the organization.”
"The other reason,” he continues, “occurs when other individuals are exposed to the more dishonest individuals and see their behavior often go unpunished. As a consequence, they sort of feel that they are being under-rewarded in their environment by a set of circumstances that allows cheaters to profit more than those who are entirely ethical. Then, we can see some adoption of dishonest behavior in the organization as a result of the observation that dishonest behavior goes unrecognized and unpunished.”
So how can organizations prevent dishonest behavior?
Dr. Cialdini explains that this requires that the executives be clear and consistent that dishonesty inside of the organization is not acceptable. “This includes dishonesty designed to improve the profits of the organization,” he says. “For example, if you find a sales person who is lying to customers about products or services, that person has to be removed. This strategy has to come from the top, with the message that this is just not who we are. This is not in the norms of our organization. We won’t tolerate it.”
Once dishonesty grips an organization, the remedy requires something that Dr. Cialdini doesn’t recommend in almost any other situation. “And that is ruthlessness,” he says, firmly. “They have to be ruthless about weeding out those individuals who are dishonest because, as I suggested earlier, those individuals tend to infect the behavior of those around them.”
Increased Surveillance
Another effect of dishonest organizations is increased surveillance. For example, an organization might react to the dishonesty within by increasing surveillance software. However, as Dr. Cialdini’s research has shown, negative effects of doing this include mental health problems such as high levels of tension, anxiety, and depression. Increased surveillance has also been linked with lower productivity and absenteeism, and employees may perceive the new surveillance as an indication that the organization does not trust them. As stated in Cialdini, Petrova, and Goldstein (2004), “Employee theft and other dishonest behaviors are only likely to motivate management to procure even higher levels of surveillance technology, further perpetuating the vicious cycle” (p. 71).
When asked if there are any ways to increase surveillance while minimizing these effects, he says, “Not that I know of. I think the way to approach that is by minimizing the need for surveillance, as I suggested earlier, by identifying and dismissing any individual who seems to be unethical in the way that they behave.”
When to Be Dishonest
We’ve all heard the popular saying, “It’s nothing personal. It’s only business.” But is dishonesty ever appropriate in the workplace?
Dr. Cialdini’s response: “I don’t think so, not for reasons of greater profit for the organization. I think that is wrong-headed. There may be some situations in which it is sometimes possible to shade the truth to protect someone who is basically innocent in a particular situation. That is the old question that ethicists ask. For example, should you lie to save a child? Of course. On the balance scale, a lie is less negative than the loss of a child. But as a rule, we want to discourage dishonesty in almost all circumstances.”
Honest Advice for You
No doubt, it is best to avoid becoming involved with dishonest organizations altogether. To help you do this, Dr. Cialdini gives the following tips. “Definitely use social media and the Internet to check on commentary that appears about an organization, especially its ethical profile. It is also possible to look at the extent to which the organization is known to be honest or dishonest in its marketing efforts, its advertising, and its sales policies. That would give you an indication that the organization does not prioritize honesty at the level of interaction with individuals outside of the organization. That sort of dishonesty is likely to transfer to the way that they handle interactions with individuals within the organization as well.”
Students or professionals who would like to pursue a career related to understanding the science of influence should consider courses in social and organizational psychology. And, Dr. Cialdini adds, if they are interested in ethical violations in the workplace, they should also look at the research in sociology involving violations of laws and regulations, and understand the factors that lend themselves to those violations. However, no matter which career path you take, be sure to heed these final words of wisdom: “You don’t have to be committed to morality for morality’s sake; you can be committed to morality for profit’s sake too.”
Cialdini, R. B., Petrova, P. K., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). The hidden costs of organizational dishonesty. MIT Sloan Management Review, 45, 66–73.

Robert B. Cialdini, PhD, is Regents’ Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University. He has been elected president of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award of the Society for Consumer Psychology, the Donald T. Campbell Award for Distinguished Contributions to Social Psychology, the (inaugural) Peitho Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Science of Social Influence, The Lifetime Contributions Award of the Western Psychological Association, and the Distinguished Scientist Award of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology.

Dr. Cialdini’s book, Influence, which was the result of a 3-year program of study into the reasons that people comply with requests in everyday settings, has sold more than three million copies while appearing in numerous editions and 32 languages. Dr. Cialdini attributes his interest in social influences to the fact that he was raised in an entirely Italian family, in a predominantly Polish neighborhood, in a historically German city (Milwaukee), in an otherwise rural state.



Copyright 2017 (Vol. 21, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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