Why cheaters at work suffer the most

When serious academics claim cheating is “extremely common in the workplace” and that “almost everybody cheats”, I feel compelled to pay attention even though it’s been more than 25 years since I witnessed such behaviour. Or rather, the worst of such behaviour. Nothing as blatant since then.

That particular incident was during my adolescence when I worked as a cashier at a department store. Over the course of a weekend, my manager would instruct me to hand over between $50 and $200 from the till which he’d pocket, leave the store for an hour or two, ask for more upon his return and then leave again only to keep repeating the process about a dozen times. It wasn’t until my colleague followed him that it became obvious he was gambling the cash away at the local TAB.

It's been 25 years since I was witness to blatant cheating by a manager at work.
It’s been 25 years since I was witness to blatant cheating by a manager at work. Credit:Sandy Scheltema

Writing in the latest edition of the esteemed Journal of Applied Psychology, the scholars who penned the claims about the prevalence of workplace cheating also state there are “damaging consequences for individuals and their social relationships”. But not in the way you might think.

In the case of my manager, the damaging consequence was the immediate loss of his job when his boss became aware of his actions, though that’s not the kind of outcome we’re talking about. We’re talking about the outcome that emerges when the cheater remains employed and imposes their own accidental punishment in what’s inadvertently a form of self-castigation.


The researchers reached that conclusion after analysing the findings of six studies. Before explaining how those studies make sense of why employees transition from an act of cheating to an act of penance, it’s worth pointing out that cheating doesn’t have to be as extreme as what I witnessed. It more frequently includes intentionally arriving late, falsifying overtime, doctoring financial reports and embellishing performance levels – anything that gives the individual an unfair advantage.

The research, which comprised nearly 1700 people at varying periods of time, reveals how quickly that unfair advantage falls apart when the cheater is overcome by feelings of shame.

Here’s how it plays out. Fairness is the glue that often keeps team members working harmoniously. When a member of the team engages in cheating and is then almost always ashamed, they view themselves as “less worthy of respect” and they begin to “question whether their standing in the group is warranted”. This leads them to devalue fairness since they’re no longer deserving of it, thereby making the glue that keeps the team cohesive to become unstuck.

The negative emotion of shame arises because any violation of moral standards at work is likewise a violation of our personal identity, hence why we don’t boast about cheating but rather try to conceal it. Deep down we also care what others think of us which means any immoral behaviour, were it to be discovered, threatens the relationships with colleagues we spend a long time cultivating.

As a result, those who cheat find themselves “feeling diminished and inferior”, preferring instead to “hide and withdraw from others” because they “fear being rejected by or expulsed from the group”. This forms the foundation for “long-term detrimental outcomes … for the individual”.

They’re detrimental outcomes which are exacerbated the more that individual associates their personal identity with the organisation. If, for example, they feel a strong connection with their employer – as though they truly belong – the intensity of shame they feel after they cheat can cause irreparable social damage that outweighs the short-term benefit they’ve gained.

In the end, they realise they haven’t actually gained a thing.

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Source: Thanks smh.com