Ethics at Work and at Play: Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater

By Peter Olsen

“You figure they cheat at the ballpark, they’ll cheat on the golf course, they’ll cheat in business, and anything else in life.” ~Bob Feller (1918-2010) American baseball pitcher

Golf has traditionally been a “gentleman’s game” of integrity and fair play in which the rulebook is sacred and players typically monitor themselves. However, a unique characteristic of golf is that it’s not only competitive but solitary – thereby increasing the propensity for cheating. A player might move the ball, hit do-over shots, count too few strokes, or pretend a missed swing was a practice swing. Admittedly, strict adherence to the rules varies among golfers as well as according to the circumstances. A group of friends playing a casual round of golf may choose to bend the rules, while in a tournament or formal setting the rules and honor system are of paramount importance. Nevertheless, many people cheat on the golf course and evidence shows that they are also inclined to cheat in other areas including business.

Cheating comes in many forms such as lying, deception, fraud, misrepresentation, manipulation, falsification of data, sabotage, bribery, plagiarism, breaking rules, sharing trade secrets, and insider trading. In the business world, cheating has always existed on both a small and large scale, from quack doctors and snake oil salesmen to organized crime and corporate corruption. But according to David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture, cheating is no longer reserved for slick hucksters, lowlife criminals, and other shady characters: “Americans are not only cheating more in many areas but are also feeling less guilty about it. When ‘everybody does it,’ or imagines that everybody does it, a cheating culture has emerged” (Callahan, 2004, p. 13).

Callahan’s analysis of the situation appears to be correct because cheating is commonplace in our culture. If someone finds a wallet full of money and turns it in to the police, this simple honest action is a rare occurrence. But it’s not unusual to find athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs, students plagiarizing term papers, job seekers padding resumes with non-existent degrees, employees lying on time sheets, and citizens under-reporting income or over-reporting deductions on tax returns. Modern technology makes it possible for even more people to cheat through the ability to illegally download music and movies, hack into computer systems, and copy pages off the internet. Still, the justification that “everybody’s doing it” doesn’t make cheating morally right.

The practice of cheating is unethical because it’s done to gain an unfair advantage, often at the expense of others. Perhaps increased cheating is a result of the “me” generation and people placing their own needs or desires above all else due to a sense of entitlement. The focus on self-interest seems to have displaced the pursuit for the common good. In the same manner, personal ethics are directly related to workplace ethics. The book Business and Society (Buchholtz/Carroll, 2009, p.256) lists seven major characteristics of immoral managers, three of which are: “These managers are self-centered and self-absorbed.” “They care only about self or organization’s profits/ success.” “They exhibit no concern for stakeholders.” Whether due to temptation, greed, laziness, deadline pressures, desire to get ahead quickly, wish to succeed at any cost, or some other reason, cheating essentially reflects the selfish nature of the individual.

A friendly game of golf can serve as a window into a person’s character. Unlike team sports, in the solo sport of golf “the ethical choices made by that athlete can be more easily measured and attributed directly to the individual’s moral code” (McKenzie, 2009, p. 9). In The Cheating Culture, the author relates the experience of a management consultant who went golfing with two CEOs. “He is shocked when… he sees one of the CEOs kick his opponent’s ball into the woods to help him gain a winning advantage” (Callahan, 2004, p. 12). The results of a survey commissioned by Starwood Hotels & Resorts also revealed that “82% of 401 high-ranking corporate executives admit to being less than honest on the golf course” (Jones, 2002). Similarly, golfers who exaggerate and say they are better players than they really are can be “dangerous business partners,” advises OpenAir Software CTO Geoff Crawshaw: “These executives are likely to predict a contract is worth $2 million when it’s really worth $750,000” (Jones, 2002). Thus, the game of golf can provide valuable insight into management behavior.

An enlightening comparison can be seen between the actions of the CEOs mentioned above to that of amateur golfer Robert “Bobby” Jones, a Harvard graduate and lawyer. He was competing in the 1925 U.S. Open when he accidentally moved the ball. This infraction hadn’t been noticed by his caddie, opponent, spectators, or any officials – and yet “he insisted, over official objections, on adding a penalty stroke to his score. When praised for his honesty, he retorted, ‘You might as well praise me for not breaking into banks. There is only one way to play this game’” (Lambert, 2002, p. 44). Although his truthfulness cost him the tournament title, it forever exemplified Jones as a man of honor and sportsmanship. Jones’ integrity is notably distinguishable from the egotism of Tiger Woods. Blaming the sport of golf for his cheating ways off the course, Woods stated: “Golf is a self-centered game” (Woods, 2010). As pointed out earlier, selfishness is the essence of cheating.

Ethics are an integral part of one’s personal value system, consistently reflected in everything that one does; so realistically a person cannot adhere to more than one set of values. In an Indiana court case, one golf professional accused another of making defamatory statements calling him a “cheat” and a “cheater.” The defendant’s counsel wrote: “Some play by most of the rules, some play by all of the rules, and some choose to disregard the rules in total. The manner in which a man approaches the game of golf is often the same manner in which he approaches the game of life” (Melton v. Ousley, 2010, p. 6). Flawed ethics in golf aren’t just part of the game but rather an indication of a person’s overall ethical attitude. This explains why cheating affects not only sports and business but also education, government, and other organizations.

In his book, Callahan suggests that cheating is a result of trickle-down corruption which eventually becomes socially acceptable. However, personal observation indicates that it more likely rises from the bottom up. For example, there are parallels between the lives of students and the experiences of executives. Academic dishonesty is often prompted by high-stakes testing, increased competition for college admissions, or simply because of pressure to obtain good grades. Business executives face volatile markets, intense competition, and pressure to increase profits. Cheating can begin as early as grade school, continue through high school and college, then proceed into the workplace and business world. The result is that dishonesty gradually becomes a way of life.

The core of this ethical problem is that America is suffering from a nationwide loss of moral integrity. People talk about their dislike of being ripped off in general, and their distrust of big business in particular. Yet even those who consider themselves to be upstanding citizens are guilty of committing the occasional act of fudging. The tendency to overlook one’s own cheating behavior is called “self-concept maintenance,” which means a person balances the motivations of cheating versus maintaining a positive self-image (Mazar et al., 2008). In other words, people cheat up to the point where they feel bad enough to acknowledge they are cheating. But the truth is, if a person merely cheats once, he is still a cheater. As one researcher observed, “society is not full of a few people who cheat a lot, but instead a lot of people who cheat a little” (McKenzie, 2009, p. 5).

Whether at work or at play – in business or in golf – cheating is morally wrong.  A straightforward approach to any situation is always the best ethical method. One’s actions should demonstrate honesty, truthfulness, and fairness both inside and outside the workplace. Simply stated, integrity is how one behaves when nobody is watching. People need to hold themselves accountable to a higher standard. By choosing not to cheat, people consciously make a statement that cheating is unacceptable and unnecessary. Development of spiritual values or ethics and character training would help to counter the moral relativism and the lack of distinction between right and wrong. In any event, it’s always a good idea to be wary of one’s opposition and remember the quote by sports commentator Heywood Hale Broun: “Sports do not build character – they reveal it.”


Buchholtz, Ann and Archie Carroll. Business And Society. Cengage Learning, 2009.

Callahan, Daniel. The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2004.

Jones, Del. “Many CEOs Bend the Rules (of Golf).” USA Today. June 25, 2002.

Lambert, Craig. “Vita: ‘Bobby’ Jones.” Harvard Magazine. March-April 2002.

Mazar, Nina, On Amir, and Dan Ariely (2008), “The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance,” Journal of Marketing Research, Volume 45, Number 6, December 2008.

McKenzie, Scott. “Driven to Cheat: A Study on the Drivers of Dishonesty-through the Game of Golf.” Duke University Honors Thesis, April 2009.

Melton vs. Ousley,  No. 91A02-0909-CV-902, Indiana Court of Appeals, 2010.

Woods, Tiger. “How I’ve Redefined Victory.” Newsweek. November 17, 2010.

Updated: April 19, 2011 — 5:00 pm

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