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Grow Your Business Your Team

Fear of Missing Out Drives Workers' Bad Behavior

Fear of Missing Out Drives Workers' Bad Behavior
Credit: PathDoc/Shutterstock

Why do employees steal? Mostly, it's a fear missing out.

That fear of missing out on the chance to steal from your company is referred to by researchers as "anticipatory regret"  and it often drives short-term workers to cheat or steal as their tenure with an employer comes to an end. That's according to a study recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

It's this "anticipatory regret" that fuels the dishonest behavior, more so than a desire for what they're actually stealing, according to J. Keith Murnighan, one of the study's authors and a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

"Think of interns who are leaving and have no chance of getting a long-term job with the same company, or a short-term worker at a plant where they're leaving and will never be back," Murnighan said in a recent interview with Kellogg Insight, the school's online magazine. "As you're leaving, you might grab something you shouldn't have on the way out the door."

To test their theory that regret over losing a final chance to benefit themselves can encourage unethical behavior, the study's authors conducted several experiments to measure the timing of when someone is willing to act dishonestly.

In two of the experiments, hundreds of participants were asked to flip a coin and report what side it landed on. The participants were told they would receive a small monetary reward if it landed on one side versus the other and since the coin flips, more than 25,000 of them, were self-reported, there were plenty of chances to lie about the results. [7 Things Workers Lie About]

The study's authors found that the coin flippers were more than three times as likely to cheat when they thought they wouldn't have any more chances to do so.

The researchers came to their conclusions that anticipatory regret was responsible for the increase in cheating after altering the timing of some of the opportunities to lie. One example of how they manipulated the chance to cheat is that they originally told the participants that they would be flipping the coin seven times. However, after the seventh flip, they told the participants to flip it one more time.

The study's authors discovered that lying about flips shot up on the seventh flip, which most thought was the final one, and then dropped down on the extra eight flip.  

If participants had been motivated by the other potential incentives, they would have continued to cheat on the eighth flip, Murnighan said.

In another experiment, the study's authors analyzed actual temporary workers who were employed by them as research assistants. These participants were hired to review a number of short essays and were told they would be paid by how long they spent working on each one. While they were told to self-report the exact number of minutes they spent on each essay, the study's authors were, unbeknown to them, also keeping track as well.

They found that research assistants were more likely to lie about how long they worked on their final essay.

Murnighan said the results shouldn't make employers' question the ethics of all  their temporary employees.

"The takeaway isn't that leaders should always expect people to act unethically," Murnighan said. "Instead, they should make it easy for people to act ethically."

He said while most employers try to squeeze as much productivity as they can from part-time workers, they are better off loosening the reins near the end of their term.

"If you’ve got a two-week job, consider letting people go home at 1 o'clock on the last day instead of keeping them until 5 p.m.," Murnighan said. "When you give them a little bonus like that, they’re less likely to try and take some other kind of bonus for themselves on the way out."

The study was co-authored by Daniel Effron, an assistant professor at the London Business School, and Christopher Bryan, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.