Five Lessons from Classroom Cheaters

Dateline Orlando – Academy of Management Conference

I can’t imagine a better place to be than Disney right now. The attraction for me is not the characters, the shows, the rides, or the fireworks (although I do love fireworks…) – it’s the chance to think and learn with no strings attached – no tests and no grades. I’ll be sharing the discussions over the next few days. The Academy is the big international conference for business school academicians. Big is an understatement: there are 1640 individual sessions over five days and over 45 concurrent sessions going on at any given time.

I began the day with a session on deterring cheating in the classroom. A friend and colleague (Dr. Matrecia James, with whom I’ll be presenting on Monday) was a presenter. I don’t deal with cheating students, and found it discouraging that business school faculty have to spend so much time on high alert, but I found parallels to issues faced in business sessions and lessons that work in all settings.

  1. Start early. Dr. Sally Sledge from Norfolk State recommended a discussion of the importance of honesty early in the term. Companies need to follow suit. A discussion of ethics – more than handing out the company values and mission statement – should be a part of every new employee orientation.
  2. Don’t give the impression that you don’t trust. I remember that from high school – the teachers that were most distrustful (and the ones who were hopelessly naïve) actually increased cheating. Leaders who build strong relationships and expect integrity usually get it.
  3. Develop an Ethical Code – an Honor Code, defined as “a set of rules of ethical principles governing a community that define what constitutes honorable behavior within that community,” in an academic institution. Only 100 colleges and universities have honor codes, it seems, but in institutions that use it well (like the University of Virginia) they work. Texas A&M helps students create an image of themselves as people of integrity – the honor code is simply “An Aggie does not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do.”
  4. Bring the code to the local level. Research shows that honor codes work best when they are brought down to the classroom level. Ethical codes and values are best when the organization code is adapted at the department and team level. Team Charters don’t just give teams agreement on goals and measure; they also allow for the team to agree on values and principles.
  5. Remind people of their values early and often. One of the presenters, Garry Adams of Auburn, quoted one of my favorite researchers, Dan Ariely, who said “When we are removed from any benchmarks of ethical thought, we tend to stray into dishonesty. But if we are reminded of morality at the moment we are tempted, then we are much more likely to be honest.” Ariely has found, depressingly, that most of us will cheat in certain situations. But over and over again he has found that reminding people of their values can almost eliminate cheating despite the temptation. See his HBR post “How Honest People Cheat” for one of the most fascinating demonstrations.
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