Books: The cheats in our midst

The Dark Side of Behaviour at Work; By Adrian Furnham and John Taylor; Palgrave Macmillan £25; MT price £23: to order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Dishonesty at work is all the firm's fault, argues this book. Henry Stewart agrees

I was not looking forward to reading this book. From the subtitle (Understanding and avoiding employees leaving, thieving and deceiving), I assumed it would be far removed from the philosophy of my company, Happy.

At Happy, a core principle is to believe the best of all our people.

We believe that people work best when they feel good about themselves.

And so the main role of management is not to focus on the dark side, but to create a framework that enables people to feel good.

I think it was Richard Branson who said that policies within a company should be based on the 99% of trustworthy individuals, not the 1% who may 'thieve and deceive'. However, if you are worried about the dangers of 'counter-productive workplace behaviour', The Dark Side of Behaviour at Work will provide all the ammunition you need.

Employee theft is allegedly responsible for one in three business failures in the US. In one survey, a whopping 87% of staff admitted to 'stealing time' through falsifying time-sheets. Employee theft in the States costs either $53 billion a year (page 100) or over $120 billion a year (page 94).

I began to wonder if I inhabited a different universe from that of the authors. Is the world really full of people ready to steal the moment the boss looks away? According to one study, 66% will steal from an employer if they see others doing so without consequence. But, apparently, the majority of fraud is committed by the bosses themselves, or at least by middle management.

Coming back to (my) reality, a Bank of Scotland survey found that fewer than 5% of small business in the UK had suffered staff fraud of even £1,000, and 75% had never suffered fraud at all.

This is a book packed with information and academic findings, as you would expect when one of the authors has - according to the book jacket - 'been recognised as the most productive psychologist in the world in the past 20 years'.

At times, however, it degenerates into a set of lists. There are the three types of power grabbers (the manipulator, the empire builder and the godfather); 12 danger signs of possible embezzlement; 30 different types of sabotage; 45 classifications of bad behaviour; and 64 elements of fraud.

As I ploughed through the summaries of academic research, I found myself longing for a pulp business bestseller with less evidence, but a clearer message.

Nevertheless, I was surprised to find myself in agreement with the core message that eventually emerges. Adrian Furnham and John Taylor describe the 'bad-person theories', but dismiss them. The vast majority of employees who act destructively are not 'sad, bad or mad'. They are simply badly treated by their companies.

With fat-cat CEOs and dishonesty at senior management levels (whether of the Enron or the Shell variety), is it surprising that employees seek to grab their share?

The authors see destructive acts as the result of a long process that begins with optimism on joining the company and descends through disappointment and disillusion to resentment and revenge. It is a slippery slope that the authors believe we could all be on, for we 'have all taken and kept small items from the office'.

More important than the written contract is the unwritten 'psychological contract' that employees feel they have with their company. As many as two-thirds of employees believe their employer 'patently violated' this understanding. (Oddly, the most important statements in the book, such as this one, are simply asserted and have no references to back them up.)

Is it surprising that people go over to the dark side, ask the authors, if they get no regular feedback on how they are doing, have no say in who will manage them, and no involvement in the design of their job?

Which brings us back to the Happy principle of helping people to feel good. We have a radical belief at my company: individuals should be chosen to manage people on the basis of how good they are at managing people. That's it.

One study - not in this book - found that 64% of staff who resign do so to leave their manager. Most managers are chosen for their core skills or strategic capability, not for their ability to nurture and coach their people. To stop your people leaving (never mind thieving or deceiving), select managers on that ability to support, and focus development on it.

The Dark Side includes examples from Herostratus (who burnt down the Temple of Artemis in 356 BC) to Nick Leeson and Aldrich Ames (the CIA spy who worked for the KGB). After all this, it is refreshing to reach the conclusion that what you need to do, more than step up security or integrity testing, is hire nice people and treat them well. What we all want, say Furnham and Taylor (quoting Maslow), is 'belongingness (sic) and love'.

- Henry Stewart is chief executive of Happy (previously known as Happy Computers).

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