In this age of constant political, digital, and economic adaptation, it’s hard to get ahead. Large swings in political power are creating less predictable policies and putting corporations under the gun to find solutions in short periods of time, an influx of start-ups makes for intense competition for investor funding, and the post-financial crisis world has led some companies to develop self-defensive strategies that only work for a little while. Today’s corporate challenges can lead to high benchmarks and cutthroat decisions in the workplace which can lay the foundation for cheating from employees who think their jobs may be at risk.

Employee cheating has been evident in the past couple years in many corporate scandals that made headlines.

  • Several car companies have been caught cheating, like Volkswagen, whose employees were striving to meet new strict emissions test demands. Engineers employed by the company designed diesel fuel engines to deceive testing equipment.
  • Employees at Hampton Creek, a plant-based food company, misled investors by making environmental claims about their production process that weren’t true.
  • At Wells Fargo, a strategy to fund the bank through customer deposits got them through the financial crises but cornered the bank into an unsustainable form of financial growth. Employees fabricated new customer accounts to meet unrealistic sales quotas.

And the list goes on. Employees cheating in the workforce is a frequent and troublesome occurrence that can stir up PR crises, elicit crippling fines, or worse. But why do employees cheat and what can we do to stop it?

New research from the University of Georgia has found that high-pressure expectations motivate employees to fabricate positive results. Marie Mitchell, an associate professor of management in UGA’s Terry College of Business, who co-authored the study, says: “It’s the desire for self-protection that primarily causes employees to cheat.”If employees think their jobs are at risk, they are more likely to fabricate results to fill any gaps where they have failed to meet quotas.

But what is an employer to do when the pressures of the marketplace seem to demand an ever increasing output?

“It could be that if you pair performance pressure with ethical standards and give employees the right kind of assurance within the workplace, it can actually motivate great performance,” Mitchell said.

Ethical standards would involve making sure employee output is cross-checked by a company leader who isn’t directly involved, ensuring reporting mechanisms are not easy to manipulate, and checking in via regular intervals to look out for large swings in performance that may be unrealistic.

If employees see that there is a close eye on what they are doing they are more likely to feel that they can show leadership that a quota is unattainable long before they feel cornered into cheating. Employees will want to know that their coworkers are being carefully reviewed as well, creating a fair environment where no one is able to get away with cheating.

Another way leadership can help avoid cheating in their workplace is to set reasonable performance demands in the first place.

“Angry and self-serving employees turn to cheating to meet performance demands. It’s understandable,” Mitchell said. “There’s a cycle in which nothing is ever good enough today. Even if you set records last month, you may get told to break them again this month. People get angry about that, and their self-protective reflex is elicited almost subconsciously.”