Here’s Why the College-Admissions Scandal Matters in the Workplace

Behavioral science expert Jeff Kreisler connects the dots between the scandal and the workplace.
By: | May 21, 2019 • 3 min read
ethical culture

As the recent college-admissions scandal reminds us, people are often willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want—even if it risks potentially destroying their reputation and putting them in prison. As has been widely reported, celebrities such as Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, along with a bevy of lesser-known folk, paid large sums of money to admissions consultant Rick Singer to get their children into the colleges of their dreams. Singer, with the apparent knowledge of the parents, engaged in cheating and bribery to get his clients’ children into colleges such as Yale and the University of Southern California. Since the scandal (code-named “Varsity Blues” by the FBI, which uncovered the scheme) broke, many of the parents involved have signed plea agreements, one couple has pled guilty, and all are facing ruined reputations and possible jail time.

Why would people who were already wealthy and successful risk so much simply to get their kids into a school of their choice? Ethics-related questions such as these have long fascinated Jeff Kreisler. A graduate of Princeton University and University of Virginia Law School, Kreisler soon realized a career in law was not for him and became a successful stand-up comic instead, focusing on political satire. He ended up writing for CNBC’s Jim Cramer and eventually wrote a book, Get Rich Cheating: The Crooked Path to Easy Street.  He also co-authored a bestselling book with Duke University Psychology Professor Dan Ariely titled Dollars and Sense.

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Today, Kreisler is editor-in-chief of PeopleScience.com, a firm that uses behavioral science to help organizations better understand how to create high-functioning workplaces. To him, the Varsity Blues scandal is representative of a deeper problem in today’s society: the willingness by otherwise “decent” people to justify their bad behavior by rationalizing that the ends (getting their children into the college of their choice) justify the means (bribery and cheating). Every day, he says, employees confront their own ethical dilemmas in the workplace—and the likelihood of whether they’ll make the right choices or not is heavily influenced by their organization’s culture.

HRE spoke with Kreisler recently to get his take on the potential lessons HR leaders can learn from the college-admissions scandal. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

What’s the connection between the Varsity Blues scandal and things that go on in the workplace each and every day?

The people involved in the cheating scandal exist in a culture where doing this sort of thing does not seem wrong. That same feeling may exist in a workplace where there isn’t a strong ethical culture in which people—when faced with important decisions—will be guided by signposts that don’t really lead to the best outcomes. Certain industries have certain rules for certain things, but if your culture is just about rules, then people tend to get as close as possible to breaking those rules without officially going over the line. Contrast that with an ethical workplace culture in which you’re guided to make decisions based on right and wrong, as opposed to just finding a rule. In the workplace, most people know not to steal, but that’s a bright-line rule. Most of the ethical dilemmas people face at work aren’t bright-line rules, however. So, if your culture is essentially saying “Just obey the rules” rather than “Do what is right,” you can get bad outcomes.

How can behavioral science address this?

Part of the fundamental thinking is that when we’re making decisions, we make value judgments. As humans, though, we have a hard time evaluating what our choices are worth. The same thing happens with ethics: When there’s not a hard and fast rule, you weigh your options. When it comes to ethics, we all have a great innate ability for self-justification. No matter what we do, we justify to ourselves that we’re good people. No one says, “I am an unethical person.” But if we have a strong ethical identity, then it becomes harder to self-justify choices and behaviors that contradict that identity. So it’s really about strengthening that ethical identity so that people have a harder time justifying to themselves if the make the wrong choices.

What are the hallmarks of a corporate culture that fosters strong ethical identities?

Organizations that actively support whistleblowing are good examples. Also, organizations in which there’s a strong sense of purpose tend to have ethical cultures, so examine what you can do to strengthen whatever the purpose is of your workplace. The Wharton School’s Adam Grant did a study involving call-center workers in which half the workers got letters from the people who benefited from their work and the other half didn’t—the letters gave the workers a sense of purpose and they outperformed their peers who didn’t get letters by two to one. So remind people that they’re doing good, important work and that, if they have to make a difficult decision, to ask themselves whether that decision will lead to the furtherance of that good work, or will it lead in another direction.

Are there some important takeaways from the Varsity Blues scandal for HR leaders and if so, what are they?

First, it’s an opportunity to have a conversation about specific events and to reiterate what sort of guidelines on ethics you may have. This is an example of situational ethics, where these people may say “I’m an ethical person” but in this case they’re clearly not. Second, it’s a reminder to find ways of strengthening your organization’s ethical culture, examine your HR processes and look at what systems are in place to report potential ethics abuses. Evaluate your systems to see whether they’re designed to support people who come forward with questions or concerns. You don’t want to create a “tattletale culture,” but in certain industries, like pharmaceuticals, there’s a lot of gray area, so you want to create a culture in which people feel comfortable asking questions. You want to pay attention to things like sales incentives—examine whether there’s a structure there that invites shortcuts and, potentially, unethical behavior.

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What’s key when it comes to strengthening an organization’s ethical culture?

One thing I’ve seen, when it comes to strengthening an organization’s core purpose and identity, is that the simpler it is, the easier it is for people to connect to it. That’s a challenge for a lot of people—accepting that the less you say, the better you look. But I point to that classic fable about the janitor who worked at NASA: When President Kennedy asked the janitor what he did, he said “I’m helping to put a man on the moon!” Purpose is what gets people out of bed in the morning, it helps them decide whether or not to take a shortcut in their work and to care about their work. What’s been fascinating is that a lot of what I’ve been saying relates to soft skills, which has traditionally been thought of as a sort of “woo-woo” topic, but behavior science has proven that soft skills really matter. It does impact peoples’ productivity, workplace satisfaction and retention.

How can organizations master behavioral science to build better workplaces?

Work is a huge part of our lives—behavioral science is crucial in helping us understand why people to go to work and why they hate or enjoy their work. The more HR can understand some of the elements of how and why their workforce is behaving, the better. Behavioral science helps us understand human nature so that we can create systems to get the most out of it rather than have human nature working against us.

Andrew R. McIlvaine is senior editor at Human Resource Executive®. A Penn State graduate, Andy also spent two years in the U.S. Army prior to attending college and attained the rank of sergeant while serving in the Army Reserves. He can be reached at [email protected]