Put the Stapler Down and Move Away from the Desk!

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By Bill Auxier, Ph.D.

I’ve been guilt ridden for over 20 years.  I am reminded of a crime I committed over 20 years ago every day I’m in my office working.  On my desk sits a stapler with a faded logo on the part where you push down to staple stuff together.  The logo is that of a former employer.  I stole that stapler from work.  Whew!  I feel better now that I’ve confessed.  No big deal you say?


A new study suggests that small crimes in the office lead to big ones.  In the study, participants were asked to solve problems and then report how many they solved correctly.  The honor system was used for reporting the number of correct answers.  One group repeated this exercise three times.  The first time they were paid 25 cents for each correct answer.  The second time they were paid $1 for each correct answer.  In the third and final round they were paid a whopping $2.50 for each correct answer.  As you can see, study participants were incentivized to increase the number of correct answers with the progressive compensation.  Other groups were either paid nothing for their correct answers or a flat rate of $2.50 per correct answer.  As you might guess, people in the group with the progressive incentives were the most likely to exaggerate the number of correct answers.

Allowing individuals to commit increasingly unethical acts over time results in rationalizing such behavior.  It also makes it routine.  If you can rationalize one bad behavior, it makes it easier to justify something just a little worse.

Leaders must lead by example as to what is right and what is wrong.  Leaders need to have a “Keep Off” sign posted by that slippery slope that is right outside every organization.  Leadership must set clear ethical standards, address all violations, large and small, and teach others how to avert slippage on that slope by leading by example.

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