Are People Who Cheat On Their Partners Less Honest At Work?

Dishonesty in romantic relationships correlates with professional misconduct, according to a study of more than 11,000 individuals. The findings, assuming the study’s novel methodology is accepted, are important for psychology, but could be used to justify disturbing invasions of people’s personal lives by employers.a

During the Clinton presidency, Republicans frequently argued “character matters” and we should reject sexually unfaithful politicians. It’s an argument they’ve recently gone strangely quiet on. Others responded that numerous extramarital liaisons didn’t stop President Kennedy from saving the world from nuclear annihilation, so perhaps other things were more important. Similar debates occur in lower profile circumstances.

In the hope of putting some data into a debate usually dominated by gut feelings, Dr Samuel Kruger of the University of Texas at Austin looked at people found to engage in misconduct in four professional settings. He used the output of the 2015 hack of Ashley Madison users’ identities to see how many of them had registered accounts with the dating site that pitched itself to people seeking extramarital affairs. The results were compared to control groups of similar age, gender, and seniority with apparently clean records.

Police officers with problematic records were more than twice as likely to have used Ashley Madison than their peers. Those with the worst records were most likely to use Ashley Madison. Similarly, usage among CEOs and CFOs leading companies with records of corporate misconduct was double that at more ethical companies, Kruger reports in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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“Our results show that personal sexual conduct is correlated with professional conduct,” Kruger said in a statement. “Eliminating sexual misconduct in the workplace could have the extra benefit of contributing to more ethical corporate cultures in general.”

If the findings encourage businesses to crack down on sexual harassment, that’s all to the good, but it is easy to see how the conclusions could be abused. Employers might use it as an excuse to fire people for sexual activity they disapprove of outside worktime, including cases that don’t involve dishonesty, such as consensual non-monogamous relationships.

The data sample is naturally imperfect. Presumably, some of the control group, rather than being exemplary citizens, had been too smart or too lucky to get caught. The paper acknowledges many people without accounts would still have had affairs but might have leaned to a different style of infidelity.

Not every Ashley Madison user would have been cheating, but 97 percent of the CEOs and CFOs in Kruger’s sample with accounts were married at the time. It is hard to get people to honestly disclose either professional misbehavior or infidelity, let alone both, so this could be the best resource on the question we get for a while.

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