Lying, Unethical Executives: Is This How They Get Started?

Students who cheat tend to be deceptive workers.

Do you remember that kid that sat across from you in Psych 101, who always cheated on exams and made up excuses about not turning in his papers? Don't be surprised if he shows up in the next cubicle, or in the executive suite at your company, and is just as deceitful. According to a new study from the University of Minnesota, cheaters in college often become cheaters in the business world.

Psychology professors Nathan Kuncel and Jacob Gau examined data from several studies involving more than 1,500 people in coming to that conclusion. "It doesn't seem like the two are very independent of each other," Kuncel, told BusinessNewsDaily, an online news source for small business and startups. Cheating behavior, he said, "tends to carry over."

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The Bigger The Cheat In College, The Bigger The Fraud In The Office

According to the study, minor collegiate corner-cutting tends to translate into the lesser workplace infractions, while the serious cheating in college seems to forecast graver workplace sins. For instance, increasing the margins or typeface on a paper in order to make it look lengthier seems to foretell the tendency to take long lunches at work. And a student who hires someone to write a college paper is more likely to commit serious fraud as an employee, such as falsifying an expense report.

"I was surprised that the relationship was as strong as it was, particularly given that people aren't often willing to self-report this type of behavior," Kuncel said. The major takeaway, he noted, should be that employers ought to regard a job candidate's record of academic dishonesty as a serious red flag.

"There is good evidence that (the fraudulent behavior) will continue to play out," he said.

Who Is Most Likely To Cheat

Anecdotal evidence suggests that cheating is becoming more common, especially in elite academic institutions. In 2012, elaborate large-scale cheating was uncovered at top schools including Stuyvesant High School in New York City, the Air Force Academy and Harvard University. In August, Harvard announced that nearly half of the 279 students in an Introduction to Congress class were being investigated for improper collaboration and plagiarism, reported The New York Times. (Harvard is currently reviewing the role of take-home exams.)

According to Howard Gardner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, "the ethical muscles have atrophied" among students at elite schools because of the drive to succeed, no matter the cost. "We want to be famous and successful, we think our colleagues are cutting corners, we'll be damned if we'll lose out to them, and some day, when we've made it, we'll be role models. But until then, give us a pass," he said.

Pervasive and chronic lying is a tell-tale sign of psychopathy. And in researching his book from 2011, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, British journalist Jon Ronson found that the incidence of psychopathy among CEOs stands at 4 percent, as compared to 1 percent for the population at large.

Who Is Lying In Your Workplace?

David Larcker and Anastasia Zakolyukina of Stanford's Graduate School of Business released a study in 2010, entitled, "Detecting Deceptive Discussions in Conference Calls," for which they studied 30,000 conference calls. They documented the below five tendencies to detect lying. (per Psychology Today.)

1. Lack of specifics. Liars tend to speak in general terms, using descriptive terms like "fantastic." and tended to shy away from actual information about the workplace's bottom line.

2. Exaggeration. Liars tended to speak in superlatives, shying away from phrases like "good."

3. Choice of speech. Liars were shown to use third person, and avoided the "I" construction.

4. Clarity of thought. Liars were less likely to pause in speaking, employing fewer "um's" and "ah's."

5. Increased swearing. Liars simply let loose more curses. One famous example was when Enron's Jeff Skilling called a questioner an "a**hole" after he challenged Skilling's assessment of Enron's financial conditions early last decade.

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