You need look no further than the newspaper headlines to see that issues of integrity have become paramount in the workplace. Scandal, abuse of power, theft, and assorted other problems have contributed to poor public images for many organizations and led to the downfall of others. The problem with integrity is twofold. First, how do we understand what integrity is, and second, how can we identify integrity in a functional sense?
Integrity may be defined as demonstrating honesty and reliability at work, and generally behaving in accord with established standards and practices of an organization. In fact, for many years the words integrity and honesty were used interchangeably. It is only lately that the definition of integrity has been expanded to include other forms of counterproductive (or deviant) behaviors, the common elements of which are that the behaviors (a) do not contribute, either directly or indirectly, to the functioning of the organization and (b) constitute a violation of either implicit or explicit norms or policies of the organization or surrounding community.
This leaves a great deal of leeway in understanding what integrity means in practice. It may be as simple as employee theft, or as complicated as the accounting frauds that plagued a number of high-profile organizations in recent years. The blanket definition of integrity also subsumes behaviors such as the use of illegal drugs, alcohol, and sometimes tobacco products, misappropriation of petty cash, and unwarranted absenteeism. Because all of these behaviors cost organizations money, it is of both theoretical and practical value to move beyond conceptualizing integrity purely in terms of honesty and to consider it in a broader context.
Costs of Low Integrity
Whether the definition chosen for integrity is broad or narrow, however, it is clear that organizations are rightly becoming more concerned with identifying individuals low in integrity. Estimates of employee theft in the United States alone were in excess of $400 billion annually in recent years, although it is worth noting that even the definition of theft is inconsistent. Some organizations (and indeed, some approaches to assessing integrity) treat an employee who takes a long lunch as stealing time, treating wages lost while the individual was not at his or her desk as accountable theft, whereas others do not.
Higher-profile examples of low integrity also abound. Enron, WorldCom, and a variety of other organizations have recently come under fire for what might kindly be called low-integrity accounting practices. Although estimates vary on the actual costs the failure of such companies may have had for shareholders (depending on the source, Enron shareholders lost between $1.2 million and $70 billion, while WorldCom shareholders may have lost as much as $100 billion), there can be no doubt that there have been nonmonetary consequences to a great many organizations as a result. Such demonstrations of low integrity can severely damage corporate reputations, leading to loss of business, profits, and jobs. They also engender problems with loyalty, organizational commitment, motivation and retention, and, perhaps most damaging, trust. This lack of trust—on the part of both employees and the general public—in whether organizations have the best interests of both the community and the organization’s many stakeholders at heart can easily be the difference between success and failure.
Perhaps the major difficulty with integrity is identifying individuals who lack integrity before they have the opportunity to harm the organization. It is important for us to understand three key pieces of what scientists refer to as the operationalization of integrity. That is, if we wish to identify individuals who are high and low in integrity, what do we look at?
It should be clear from the previous discussion that a great deal is subsumed under the heading integrity, and there are many potential signs that integrity either is or will become an issue for any member of the organization. When asked to describe how they might identify people low in integrity, there is a temptation on the part of many to simply say, “I know it when I see it.” The issue is much more complicated than that, however, and the fact of the matter is that few people are exceptionally good at recognizing individuals who are likely to demonstrate low integrity based on a casual (or even not-so-casual) interaction. Integrity has behavioral, attitudinal, and trait components, each of which will be discussed in turn.
Behavioral integrity is what concerns many organizations. Indeed, most of the examples noted above are behavioral in their focus. Theft is a behavior in which a member of the organization takes the organization’s resources—money, toner cartridges, or paper clips— for personal use and/or without the sanction of the organization. Embezzlement, fraud, the use of drugs on the job, and countless other behavioral examples abound of low integrity.
The difficulty with using an individual’s behaviors as a means of judging integrity is that although low-integrity behaviors may be common in organizations (remember that $400 billion in annual theft?), actually catching people in the act, or having them admit to such behaviors, is not. By the time lack of behavioral integrity is evident, the damage has been done. The ability to say that mistakes were made, that someone of questionable integrity was put into a position from which he or she could harm the organization, is less valuable than the capacity to identify such individuals in advance. Therefore, although many organizations focus on behavioral aspects of integrity, these may prove less valuable than the other methods of functionally defining integrity.
One of the precursors of low-integrity behavior is necessarily an attitude that such behaviors are, if not acceptable, then at least normal. Individuals with the potential to cause integrity-related problems for organizations may say things like, “You can’t weed out all the problem employees, since everyone gives in to temptation from time to time.” Such statements, although potentially true, may reveal a great deal about the speaker, even if they must be interpreted with caution. A statement such as “There’s no way to stop people from stealing office supplies” may reflect an acceptance of a theft norm, or it may simply reflect a level of learned helplessness on the part of a person who has tried (and failed) to stop such behaviors.
The notion of norms becomes very important in understanding attitudinal integrity. When an employee begins to accept theft, fraud, or whatever other counterproductive behavior is common in the organization as a recognized part of daily operations, the psychological prohibitions against engaging in such behaviors break down. Pundits have noted that it is unlikely, for example, that the employees of Enron could have remained completely unaware that their organization was engaging in unethical business practices. Indeed, the individual credited with being a whistle-blower in the Enron case did not go public with the damaging information, choosing instead to keep it internal in an attempt to prevent the organization from suffering in the public eye. The norms of the organization were strong enough that even though she uncovered significant accounting problems, she reportedly did not go to the board of directors, did not go to the media, and did not resign. When an organization’s norms (and, in this case, the financial futures of many of its employees) allow for or encourage unethical or immoral behaviors, it should come as a minimal surprise when the attitudes of its employees shift toward an acceptance of lower integrity.
Employers, then, need to be aware of potential indicators of attitudinal indicators of potential integrity problems. Questions such as “Would you say everyone is a little dishonest?” (a variation on which appears in a number of published measures of integrity) are relatively unambiguous. More ambiguous statements (e.g., “Close enough for government work!”), which may indicate low integrity, should be viewed with caution and in some respects resemble a projective personality test. If we are truly concerned with personality as a means of understanding integrity, research indicates that we would be much better served by using a trait-based approach.
A third approach to functionally identifying individuals likely to engage in low-integrity behavior is to begin with the notion that integrity is actually a trait, or a constellation of traits, that is part of an individual’s personality. One of the most widely researched facets of personality is the conscientiousness factor, common to the five-factor model of personality, as well as other approaches. Conscientiousness subsumes a number of other traits, including orderliness, diligence, and general honesty; the conscientious person tends to show up for work on time, do her work in as professional a manner as possible, and generally demonstrate the behaviors taken to be indicative of high integrity. It should come as no surprise that this personality trait has sometimes made its way into our understanding of integrity. Other personality facets that have sometimes been considered as aspects of integrity include emotional stability as well as factors such as locus of control and achievement orientation that were likely socialized into individuals at a young age.
What constitutes integrity at work? Clearly, this is a complex issue. With behavioral, attitudinal, and trait components, and based as it is on both organizational and cultural norms, the meaning of integrity can be difficult to pin down. What cannot be disputed is its importance; the costs of low-integrity behaviors are well documented in the research and popular literatures, and it can only be to the benefit of organizations to encourage integrity in their employees.
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