Because short-term or contract employees are hired for a specific period of time, they know when the end of their time with the employer is near. A new study shows that as they approach this final period, departing short-termers will often cheat the employer in some way. The reason: it’s their last chance to make a little gain at the employer’s expense.
The gig economy (‘gigs’: think musicians and bands) — an economy built more than ever before on contract workers and part-timers — is dramatically changing the relationships between employers and the people they employ.
One side effect of the gig economy, according to a recent study, is that short-term workers on their way out are going to find a way to cheat the company. It will not necessarily be a big cheat, but rather a small parting ‘gift’ that contract workers or part-timers offer themselves.
Why do departing workers feel compelled to cheat at the end of their ‘gig’?
According to the study’s authors, the reason is what psychologists called ‘anticipatory regret.’ This is the feeling that you have one last opportunity to make a gain and that you will regret the missed opportunity if you don’t take advantage of it.
To prove their thesis, the researchers conducted four experiments that offered a total of 2,500 people more than 25,000 cheating opportunities.
Specifically, the first three experiments involved a coin toss in which participants faced the temptation to cheat in order to receive a greater financial reward. Via the Internet, participants were asked to toss a coin a certain number of times and to tell the researchers on which side their coins landed. Landings on one side earned more than the other. Participants were asked not to cheat, although they were also told that there was no way the researchers could verify the results.
(In actuality, given that a coin will land approximately 50% of the time on each side, the researchers could detect cheating when for a certain flip, the coins would somehow land much more than 50% of the time on the ‘lucrative’ side.)
The analysis of the coin tosses showed that the chances of cheating at the end of the series were three times higher than earlier in the series — indicating that participants started cheating when they saw the ‘door closing’ on their opportunities.
To further test this result, the researchers would in some cases suddenly ‘reopen’ the door. For example, if participants had been told they would have 10 flips of the coin, they would be unexpectedly offered an 11th flip. Having not anticipated this extra ‘last’ chance to cheat, most participants did not cheat on this flip, even though they had cheated on the 10th flip — the one they had believed would be their last.
This variation rebuts one of the alternative explanations for the end-of-series cheating: that over time, a person’s moral compass becomes eroded and thus they end up cheating. The fact that the participants cheated on what they anticipated was their last chance, but not on the extra chance they were unexpectedly offered, shows that this ‘moral erosion’ explanation is invalid.
The coin toss experiments also revealed another factor: the length of the series. Participants cheated on the 10th toss, as shown above. Some participants, however, were told they would have 20 tosses, making the 20th toss the final chance to cheat. Surprisingly, there was little cheating on the 20th toss, indicating that the anticipatory regret effect is strongest with limited opportunities.
The third coin toss experiment was a thought experiment — that is, participants only imagined tossing the coin with the last toss falling on the less lucrative side of the coin, and were asked whether they would be tempted to lie about this last toss. The thought experiment replicated the results of the actual coin tossing experiments.
The fourth experiment involved a different task: reviewing a series of essays. As with the coin toss, the participants self-reported the results – in this case, how much time they spent on each essay. (Needless to say, and unbeknownst to the participants, the researchers actually knew how much time was spent on each essay). The participants were paid for their time.
As with the coin toss experiments, the greatest cheating (by overstating the time spent) occurred at the end — that is, with the last essay.
Businesses are using the gig economy to their advantage, avoiding payroll charges and only paying contractors for specific assignments. This research, however, shows that a finite assignment can have an unexpected consequence that doesn’t occur with ongoing employment: last-minute cheating driven by anticipatory regret.
The best way to counteract this phenomenon is to recognize when the ‘last-chance-to-cheat’ temptation might take effect and focus their employee monitoring on these periods. (Most companies do not have the resources to monitor employees at all times.)
Most employees do not cheat. But if they do, it will probably come at the end of their employment.
Cheating at the End to Avoid Regret. Daniel A. Effront, Christopher J. Bryan & J. Keith Murnighan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Forthcoming).
Ideas for Leaders is a free-to-access site. If you enjoy our content and find it valuable, please consider subscribing to our Developing Leaders Quarterly publication, this presents academic, business and consultant perspectives on leadership issues in a beautifully produced, small volume delivered to your desk four times a year.
For the less than the price of a coffee a week you can read over 650 summaries of research that cost universities over $1 billion to produce.
Use our Ideas to:
Speak to us on how else you can leverage this content to benefit your organization. email@example.com