Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2013

Social Comparisons and Deception Across Workplace Hierarchies: Field and Experimental Evidence

by Benjamin Edelman and Ian Larkin

Abstract

We examine how unfavorable social comparisons differentially spur employees of varying hierarchical levels to engage in deception. Drawing on literatures in social psychology and workplace self-esteem, we theorize that negative comparisons with peers could cause either junior or senior employees to seek to improve reported relative performance measures via deception. In a first study, we use deceptive self-downloads on SSRN, the leading working paper repository in the social sciences, to show that employees higher in a hierarchy are more likely to engage in deception, particularly when the employee has enjoyed a high level of past success. In a second study, we confirm this finding in two scenario-based experiments. Our results suggest that longer-tenured and more successful employees face a greater loss of self-esteem from negative social comparisons and are more likely to engage in deception in response to reported performance that is lower than that of peers.

Keywords: Ethics; Personal Development and Career; Behavior; Competitive Strategy; Competitive Advantage;

Citation:

Edelman, Benjamin, and Ian Larkin. "Social Comparisons and Deception Across Workplace Hierarchies: Field and Experimental Evidence." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 09-096, February 2009. (Revised August 2013.)