No one likes a liar. But a new study out of Chicago Booth has found that lying is actually seen as a sign of competence in certain roles.
What kinds of roles? The kinds that require you to sell.
That's right--when you're hiring someone who's going to need to make big sales, new research says you're actually more likely to see that person's ability to deceive as an asset, not a detriment.
The study, "Deception as Competence: The Effect of Occupational Stereotypes on the Perception and Proliferation of Deception," was headed up by Emma Levine out of Chicago Booth and Brian Gunia from Johns Hopkins. The researchers obviously don't condone the hiring of liars, and were quick to point out the cost of this kind of hiring:
"Deception, in the form of fraud, embezzling, and corruption, costs the economy a great deal of money and undermines the economy's underlying moral fabric," Gunia and Levine assert. "Companies expose themselves to greater risk by hiring deceivers."
Yet companies do hire deceivers--frequently.
Here's how they proved it: They first asked people to rank 32 occupations as high or low in terms of "selling orientation." In other words, how often did people in these roles need to persuade others to buy something immediately?
They then focused on the three occupations known to have a high selling orientation: sales, investment banking, and advertising; and those that have a low one: consulting, nonprofit management, and accounting.
Then they ran experiments to see how often individuals in those roles lied or were honest when it came to various acts, such as reporting expenses after a business trip, or when trying to win an economic game in the lab.
Finally, participants were asked to assess how successful they thought a liar or honest person would be in a certain occupation, and whether they'd hire them for that role.
The results? Basically, research participants thought liars would be more successful in the high-selling roles than the low-selling ones. Further, they believed liars would be more successful in the high-selling roles than honest people.
"We found that people don't always disapprove of liars," said Levine. "Instead, they think liars are likely to be successful in certain occupations--those that do a lot of high-pressure selling."
In a way, this makes sense. Many companies rely on their salespeople to bring in and close the leads. There's a perception that you may "need" that person to be, shall we say, persuasive. But where's the line between being persuasive and being outright deceptive?
The researchers have uncovered an ugly truth: corporate deception still prevails in certain occupations not despite hiring practices, but because of them. Hiring managers and others view liars as more competent when it comes to hardcore sales positions, and therefore hire more of them than honest people.
Obviously the researchers are not suggesting that this is a positive thing, and they have a suggestion when it comes to halting the practice.
"Armed with the knowledge that deception is perceived to signal competence in high-pressure sales occupations," the researchers say, "companies may want to explicitly deem deception as incompetent."
Thus, if you want to stop hiring liars as salespeople, you should make it clear that you link lying with incompetence.
The researchers also suggest highlighting the need for a customer-centric approach in language around job requirements. If the goal is not solely to make sales, but to help a client fulfill his or her long-term interests, then it's not just about the hard sell.
In the end, it's truly not worth it to hire a liar. Employee theft costs U.S. businesses $50 billion or more annually. While it may seem worth it in the short-term, it's bad for everyone long-term.
Honesty, it turns out, is the best (corporate) policy.