If you value your honesty, you might want to think long and hard about what industry you go into, according a new study from the University of Zurich.
Researchers at the university noticed cases of fraud reported in the banking industry in recent years, causing them to wonder: "Are bank employees by nature less honest people? Or does the business culture in the banking sector favor dishonest behavior?"
As it would turn out, bank employees are not more dishonest as person than people working in other industries, but the culture of banking appears to skew toward dishonest behavior.
Economists Alain Cohn, Ernst Fehr and Michel Marechal, who led the research, believe their findings highlight the need for a healthier business culture in banking to restore trust in the industry.
“Our results suggest that the social norms in the banking sector tend to be more lenient towards dishonest behavior and thus contribute to the reputational loss in the industry,” Marechal, professor for experimental economic research, said in a statement.
The authors of the study, published in the journal Nature this week, recruited 200 bank employees — some from a large, international bank and others from smaller banks, according to the news release. The study participants were divided randomly into either a group that reminded them of their job and the behaviors associated with it (the experimental group) or a group that emphasized their non-occupational roles in society and what they do in their off time (the control group). From there, the researchers had both groups complete a task that could allow them to increase their salary by $200, but they had to act dishonestly to get it. Those who were reminded of their role in the banking industry were significantly more likely to behave dishonestly than those in the group reminded of what they do in their leisure time outside of work.
The researchers conducted a similar study with employees who worked in other industries and found that these employees, when faced with the opportunity to increase their salary, did not act more dishonestly if they were in the group reminded of their occupation.
“The banks could encourage honest behavior by changing the industry’s implicit social norms," Cohn, who is now with the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, said in a statement. "Several experts and supervisory authorities suggest, for example, that bank employees should take a professional oath, similar to the Hippocratic Oath for physicians.”
Benedetto De Martino, a economics and neuroscience researcher at the University of Cambridge, told Nature that he was surprised by the results.
“I was surprised that people didn’t cheat a bit more in the other condition,” De Martino, who was not involved in the study, told Nature. “Normally you find people cheating a bit in the control. These phenomena are going on for everybody.”