Why some professions reward dishonesty

Alice G. Walton | Jun 11, 2019

Most people don’t look favorably upon acts of deception. Research finds that deception elicits all kinds of negative emotions in the perceiver and tends to signal incompetence in the deceiver. Why, then, is deception so prevalent in business and the world in general? And how can managers encourage employees to be more honest?

Johns Hopkins’ Brian C. Gunia and Chicago Booth’s Emma Levine had a hunch that deception might not be viewed so negatively for certain professions, such as sales. In occupations with what the researchers call “high selling-orientation,” defined as the “use of high-pressure persuasion tactics to elicit immediate, self-interested economic transactions,” they argue that deception might actually be seen as a signal of competence. 

This occurs, they suggest, because people view deception as a particularly effective high-pressure persuasion tactic. As a result, a salesperson who deceives a customer in order to get the customer to buy a product might be seen as a particularly competent salesperson. What’s more, Gunia and Levine find the perceptual link between deception and selling orientation is so strong that even deception that has nothing to do with selling is seen as a signal of competence. For example, the authors find that employees who lie on their expense reports—an act of deception that is costly for companies—are seen as competent employees in high selling-orientation occupations.

Sales isn’t the only occupation where these skills are regarded as beneficial. The researchers suspected that many professions would be seen as high in selling orientation, and as a result, might reward deception. To figure out the set of occupations to which this association applied, the authors ran a pilot study in which they asked 204 participants to rate each of 32 professions including mechanic, doctor, and lawyer on a scale they devised to measure perceived selling orientation. Respondents placed occupations including salesperson, advertiser, and travel agent at the top for selling orientation, and librarian, machine operator, and chemist at the bottom. 

Then the researchers studied whether people view deception differently in occupations stereotyped as high versus low in selling orientation. Online participants read about Julie, an individual on a business trip who exaggerated the cost of a company-reimbursed cab ride by $10. The participants were randomly informed that Julie was either an investment banker, a salesperson, an advertiser, a consultant, a nonprofit employee, or an accountant. Participants rated Julie as more competent when she was from a high sales-oriented occupation such as investment banker or salesperson than when she was from a low sales-oriented profession such as nonprofit employee or accountant, the researchers find. 

Another group of online participants read about James, who acted either dishonestly, agreeing with his boating-buff boss that sailing was great, or honestly, admitting he didn’t care for sailing. Participants rated how James would do when changing careers to a high or a low sales-oriented profession. The lying version of James would do better when switching to a high sales-oriented profession than an honest James, the participants said. In other words, in certain occupations (namely sales, advertising, and investment banking), participants believed that deceivers would be more competent employees than honest people.

In a lab setting, Gunia and Levine had participants observe an individual playing the part of the sender in the deception game, an economic game commonly used to measure the use of deception in laboratory studies. The sender has the opportunity to either tell the truth or lie to the receiver, which affects how much money each party will take away. Lying benefits the sender, but harms the receiver. In this study, each participant observed the sender either lying or telling the truth; after that, they had to say how likely they’d be to hire the sender into each of six occupations. Participants were more likely to hire deceptive senders than honest senders into high sales-oriented jobs, but they were more likely to hire honest senders than deceptive senders into low sales-oriented jobs. 

Gunia and Levine say their findings may explain why deception is so prevalent in corporations: for those in sales-oriented positions, an inclination to deceive may be associated with competence and thereby be positively reinforced. The researchers suggest that managers who witness deceptive behavior “may wish to publicly admonish it and thus reinforce the need for deception-free competence, potentially supplementing such messages with training in alternative approaches to selling, like customer orientation. . . . This reframing could help to sever the link between deception and competence.”­