Lie, Cheat, Flirt. What People Will Do to Keep a Job

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If you're one of the dwindling ranks of the still employed, you know you're among a fortunate bunch. In this market, a job is about the only asset that continues to have value. So, if your livelihood were threatened, how far would you go to hang on to it? Would you lie to your colleagues? Would you flirt with your boss?

Those were some of the questions posed to 1,200 American workers in a new survey conducted by Harris Interactive from Feb. 25-27. Fully 28% of respondents said they would act immorally — including lying or backstabbing — to keep their jobs. The survey was commissioned by Adecco, the world's largest staffing-solutions company, which oversees 700,000 employees around the world in any given week. The company wanted to know how the recession has affected people's attitudes toward their career and job prospects, which are, of course, getting only dimmer — since last fall, the number of available jobs has declined while the number of job seekers has remained constant, according to Bernadette Kenny, chief career officer at Adecco. (See pictures of office cubicles around the world.)

Given the state of the economy, perhaps it comes as no big shock that 13% of the survey respondents said they would outright lie or exaggerate to keep their jobs — even though such behavior is forbidden by many companies' ethics policies. About 2% said they would take credit for someone else's work or flirt with the boss to get ahead, and 4% would lie about having common interests with their boss to deepen their bond with a superior. "The negative responses were surprisingly high," says Kenny. "People are very frightened of losing their job, and they become threatened. People make extensive plans for Christmas, for vacations, weddings and holidays, but they put very little planning into their own career, which is a family's greatest investment. So they are not prepared financially and emotionally for the loss of steady income." And under that threat, she says, people are more likely to resort to dishonesty to save their livelihood. (See 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)

The youngest workers were the most likely to resort to questionable tactics, the survey found. Nearly 40% of employees from 18 to 34 said they would act dishonestly to save their jobs, a quarter of them would explicitly lie, and 4% would flirt with their boss for an advantage. It's not clear whether members of the younger generation are simply more forthcoming than their elders about bad behaviors, or whether they're just plain old bad. Probably a bit of both, says Kenny. "They are the newest in the professional world, so they are still learning the professional lessons of integrity and quality," she says. "Sometimes they can only be learned the hard way." (Read "Does Office Romance Get a Bad Rap?")

For employers, the survey is a reminder that company ethics policies should be made available and discussed frequently to try to ensure that all employees abide by them. In some workplaces, dishonesty is a fireable offense, and flirting, while not cause for immediate termination, requires counseling and education. And any problematic behavior may make you vulnerable in the next round of layoffs. So if you're not careful, you may end up losing the very thing you're trying to save.

Read "Is It Less Stressful to Get Laid Off Than Stay On?"

Read "What to Do If You Get Laid Off."