Groups Lie — But Should You Blow the Whistle?

Most people have a hard time imagining themselves going along with a truly bad idea at work, one that will harm people or enrich themselves at others' expense. But we don't work in a vacuum, and as a new study shows, even if we think of ourselves as honest people on our own, we find it hard to say no when something benefits a group.

Economists at Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich asked participants to watch footage of dice rolls and say what number came up; higher numbers meant they would be paid more for their participation. Researchers asked for these answers one-on-one, in group settings where all answers had to match to receive the payout, and in group settings where everyone could report as they wished. Groups could also use an online chat to discuss outcomes.

"We observed that groups lie significantly more than individuals when group members face mutual financial gain and have to coordinate an action in order to realize that financial gain," said study co-author Martin G. Kocher. Not only that, but group members acknowledged that their preferred course of action might be dishonest, yet did it anyway. Nearly three times as many group members argued for dishonesty over honesty, and there was almost no correlation between how honest participants were in individual sessions versus the group.

If you consider yourself someone who won't stand for dishonest behavior, you may also have thought about whistleblowing, whether it's to your boss, to HR, or to an outside oversight agency. Whistleblowers can be seen as heroic — think of Erin Brockovich or Deep Throat. But the federal Office of the Whistleblower isn't for every scenario. Make sure you're talking to the proper authority when you come with allegations, and that you've documented your case in an airtight way. The CEO, for example, is probably not your first stop if you haven't talked over the issue with your boss or HR first. You may not have the whole picture, or you may be misidentifying illegal behavior.

Finally, consider that the job of the human resources department is, above all, to protect the company. Whistleblowing comes with a lot of hurdles, including the chance of retaliation, and protections apply to very specific sets of actions. If something off-color really is going on, be prepared for a long process, or even leaving the job. That said, this new study could bear some good news — convince your group that it's in their financial best interests to shape up and the problem may solve itself.