It’s a fact that honest companies outperform their dishonest competitors. So how do you motivate your teams to perform with greater integrity?
There is ample evidence that honest companies outperform their dishonest competitors. And while almost every company says they are honest, many do not create and support a culture of honesty. The research tells us there is one key thing any company can do to ensure we are honest at work.
According to annual research conducted by global accounting firm EY, 97 per cent of businesses say it is important that they operate with integrity. Businesses want to be honest for one very simple reason. Their reputation is on the line. Almost all of them rate customer perception as the most important reason to behave honestly, with public and shareholder perception coming a close second and third.
They believe that honesty, or at least having your customers, shareholders and the public believe you are, is key to successful business performance. Obviously, acting with integrity makes it easier for organisations to operate by reducing scrutiny and fines, but there are other much more important ways that honesty improves business performance. Dishonesty also has a direct impact on the bottom line. A recent study by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners found that about 5 per cent of a business’s annual revenue is lost when that business is struck by dishonest acts such as asset misappropriation (theft and skimming), corruption (bribes and conflicts of interest) and financial statement fraud (misreporting sales and expenses).
Besides those direct impacts, honest organisations attract the best employees and customers. We would all prefer to do business with an honest seller or buyer and we would all prefer to work in a place that has a reputation for integrity. While the impact of better customers and employees is difficult to measure, there is little doubt both improve the bottom line. Every year Ethisphere ranks the World’s Most Ethical Companies and compares their performance to their competitors. Their research shows that over the five years to 2018, the World’s Most Ethical Companies outperformed the US large cap sector by 10.72 per cent.
So, the benefits are clear. But according to the EY report one in six companies still undertake fraudulent and corrupt behavior. Its not for lack of policy. Almost all organisations have implemented anti-fraud and corruption programs and 95 per cent say their senior leaders set examples of good ethical behavior.
The problem isn’t lack of desire for honesty. The problem is getting everyone to actually behave honestly. There is however one key thing every organisation can do to drive a culture of honesty, remind us we are honest.
The research on cheating and lying tells us that it doesn’t take much to remind us that we are all, at base, honest people who are happier if we behave morally. Once we remember that, we generally behave that way. The most effective method to remind people of this is to prompt honesty at key moments. Usually these little prompts are cheap and easy to implement, and most important when we are tempted to fudge things a bit. Professor Dan Ariely from Duke University has spent more than a decade putting people in situations where they could lie and seeing if they do. His research demonstrates that people don’t lie more just because the reward for lying is bigger and they don’t lie less just because the chance of getting caught is greater.
When people don’t have to lie to a person face to face in return for the reward, they cheat a lot more. Making us deal with people face to face halves the chance of dishonesty. And we are also more likely to be dishonest if we think everyone else is being dishonest and conversely more likely to be honest if we think everyone else is honest.
But the real kicker, was the one thing that stopped almost all the lying. It was simply reminding us that our workplace has code of honesty before we are put in a situation where we might be tempted to be dishonest. Bizarrely the studies showed that even something as simple as getting people to sign the top of the test (before they lie) killed the cheating. If they signed the bottom, after they lied, they cheated as normal.
When this was implemented in a large-scale trial of insurance applications, the results were even more impressive. Researchers from the Harvard Business School decided to see if signature placement on insurance forms changed the level of honesty in disclosure. The results showed that customers self-reported 10.25 per cent more miles when they were asked to sign the declaration of honesty before they filled in the form. This would amount to an insurance premium being on average $97 more costly per car depending on whether the form was signed at the top or the bottom. Even at a significant personal cost, people were more inclined to be honest if they declared honesty before they filled in the form.
Of course, the other way to stop people lying is to do what they did in the control state of the study – check everybody and everything all the time. But who really wants to work in a police-state? Life is so much easier if you can trust people to be honest.