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The hacking last year of the Ashley Madison adultery site caused embarrassment to millions.
But for business school academics at Tulane and Michigan State universities, the hacked data presented a research opportunity: how many of the site’s customers used their work email addresses and what did this say about the companies that employed them?
The researchers looked beyond the people who had inactive Ashley Madison accounts. Someone else could have registered them as a joke.
Instead, they examined those who had actively used their accounts between 2002 and 2014 — buying credits to send messages, start chat sessions or send virtual gifts.
They found 47,000 people who had used their work email addresses on the site. The practice was not widespread. At those companies where people had used a work address, the number who had done so averaged only 5.4.
But, the researchers said, “our hypothesis is that these accounts are the tip of the proverbial iceberg?.?.?.?They provide a (potentially noisy) signal of cultures that are ‘lax’.” These are companies, they said, that did not “emphasise integrity”.
In their paper “Fifty Shades of Corporate Culture”, the researchers looked at some characteristics of the companies where these risk-takers worked. The results were startling.
The companies with would-be adulterers were more likely to have been disciplined by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for accounting irregularities.
They had a higher record of being involved in bribery and fraud scandals, tax disputes, human rights violations and product quality problems.
Except this wasn’t the only set of findings. The companies employing Ashley Madison members also appeared to be more inventive and creative. They had made more successful patent applications, and those patents had covered a wider range of technologies. The companies tended to be in high-growth sectors.
The researchers suggested that the two sets of findings were perfectly compatible. Rule-breaking and creativity often went together.
“Creative thinkers are able to find creative, but potentially unethical loopholes to solve difficult problems, and they are able to invent creative rationalisations for dishonest behaviour,” they wrote.
The researchers accepted that there were creative and inventive people who were scrupulously ethical. But theirs was not the only study showing a link between creativity and dishonest behaviour. Other researchers had found the same.
“Our results suggest that there is a trade-off between an ethical, rules-driven, process-oriented culture and a culture that encourages innovation and risk-taking,” they wrote.
At a time when companies’ ethical behaviour is under particular scrutiny, these are uncomfortable conclusions. Do companies have to accept that, if they want to employ creative people, some of them are going to cheat, and not only on their spouses?
The problem with this acceptance of rule-breaking is that we have seen where it leads. It is not just about creativity. Unethical staff can damage companies.
Look at Volkswagen, where a reputation for probity has been shredded by employees who were creative with diesel emission tests.
Look at the banks that have been laid low by traders manipulating interest rate benchmarks. And look at Enron, a company apparently entirely devoted to risk-taking that was destroyed by it.
Some may be bristling at these examples. These were not instances of creativity but of CRIminality. There are plenty of creative companies where people manage to come up with bright ideas without breaking the law or offending anyone’s moral code.
This is true, but the Michigan State/Tulane research shows that cheaters often prosper. If you run a company of cheaters, you may succeed, but your luck will not last for ever, as the examples above show.
Honest corporate leaders who employ creative people but don’t want to destroy the company need to be alert to how far their rule-breakers are likely to go and when they need to rein them back.
As with all effective management, that means learning and relearning every corner of the business. Constantly repeating the rules is not enough. Risk takers — and adulterers — pay no attention to that.