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Do Abusive Bosses Cause Cheating Workers?


Whatever you do for a living, whether it’s crunch numbers or play ball, working under an abusive leader derails morale. There is some evidence that when it gets bad enough, workers cheat and even break the law.


(Photo Credit: Public Domain Archive)

While it would be morally irresponsible for an adult to blame his behavior on his boss’s obnoxious attitudes and behavior, it is also true that none of us live in a vacuum. We spend the day reacting and responding to other people. And sometimes, the behavior of other people helps us decide to behave in less than admirable ways.

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In sports, there is a growing body of research that indicates the stress of playing under an abusive coach leads some athletes to cheat. A recent study looked at both male and female athletes from 600 different colleges. Athletes in Division I colleges reported more willingness to cheat than at Division II colleges, which may be a reaction to increased pressure. However, the main variable that caused players to cheat was verbal abuse and lack of ethics on the part of coaches.

Lots of employees work in high-stress environments with emotionally and verbally abusive bosses. There is less research done on whether they are willing to cheat on their jobs, but there is a small body of evidence to draw from.


The Los Angeles Times reported last December on the “pressure cooker” at Wells Fargo Bank sales division. Management had implemented seemingly draconian quotas for opening new accounts and selling customers “extras,” such as overdraft protection. Workers who did not meet their quotas were required to stay late and come in weekends to meet the company’s sales goals.

These workers were also threatened with losing their jobs and told if they didn’t meet quotas they would be let go. Overworked, stressed, and pressured by their bosses, Wells Fargo employees cheated.

Some employees begged their family members to open “ghost accounts.” Others went further, opening accounts and ordering credit cards without client permissions. Some bank workers went so far as to forge their clients’ signatures on paperwork.

If it happened at Wells Fargo, it can happen anywhere. There is much academic interest these day in workplace bullying and how it affects employee morale and productivity. But low morale and downright cheating are two different things. Perhaps we need to look more directly at causes and preventions of cheating in the workplace.

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