“All I Need to Know about Business Dishonesty I Learned at School”

by Dr. Meir Tamari

Evidence seems to be mounting that cheating on exams in schools has reached epidemic proportions in almost all Western countries. A recent issue of the READERS’ DIGEST describes in gory details the extent of cheating in the United States, and other countries have similar records. It is perhaps easy to dismiss cheating on exams as a form of youthful pranks or misdemeanors. Yet even a cursory examination will show, that in actual fact the mind frame behind such cheating is a preparation for dishonesty in business. The motivation, the evaluation of the action, and the spiritual framework within which cheating on exams exists, all promote unethical behavior by workers, by employers, and by consumers. From the seemingly small beginnings of such cheating ultimately grow the white collar criminals of the future as well as the dishonest behavior regarding money and wealth. Any concerted effort in the field of ethical education in business must, of necessity, therefore concern itself also with this phenomenon in the school systems.

Rationalizing Dishonesty

Many students, who would never actually steal money or goods from their neighbors or stores, find it hard to see in their cheating an example of theft. They are not taking any tangible or physical objects as the person from whom they copy retains the exam or term paper. There are many actions in business life that are easily rationalized along the same lines; copying of software and reproducing cassettes, nondisclosure of pertinent financial information or of defects in goods or services sold, and some aspects of advertising. Jewish law, however, recognizes a form of dishonesty beyond theft which it includes in the concept of “geneivat da’at”, literally stealing the mind or creating a false impression. The student cheating is stealing the mind of the examiner and of the public authority that grants accreditation and certification. Furthermore, in later life, using the same unearned grades, employment is obtained, thus deceiving the employer.

There are many cases where the cheating on exams is actual theft, whereby the person from whom the answers are copied loses their relative advantage. For example, where a short list for admission to university or employment exists, the cheater may easily displace the other person thereby causing them loss.

“Every body Does It!”

A major factor determining the scope of cheating in school is the degree of clearly expressed disapproval by parents, peers, school authorities, and the general public. In those societies, where such disapproval exists, the cheating becomes a marginal phenomenon, so that even if it exists, it does not lead to widespread unethical behavior in the future. Conversely, where parents condone the action of their children or where the school fails to punish the culprit, or to show in any other way its disapproval, a clear message is given encouraging unethical behavior. The same message is given when the financial affairs of parents or teachers or communal leaders are conducted in an immoral fashion. Any immorality or unethical action on the part of adults encourages a student to follow suit. So cheating on taxes, abusing employers facilities or goods, evading one’s financial obligations, exploiting one’s workers, or for that matter any and all of the myriad possibilities for unethical business behavior, tell the student that all methods for achieving one’s aims, in this case, unjustified grades, are justified. Surely this is a preparation for dishonest and unethical business practices in the future!

Jewish law provides numerous examples for expressing public disapproval for unethical behavior. For example, one who reneges on a contract or does not fulfill their obligations, is considered to be lacking in faith in G-d. So Mi Shepara: “He who claimed His debt from the generation of the Flood and of the Tower of Babel and of the people of Sodom, will surely punish one who does not keep his word,” — was recited in the synagogue in the presence of the offender and his family.

Secret Crimes

In many cases today, cheating in school is done openly and is not longer the secret crime that it was in other times or other societies. This removes a major deterrent to dishonesty, namely the fear of discovery and punishment. The same is true of the many areas in business where unethical practices are conducted publicly and thereby become acceptable norms. It is this acceptability of economic immorality that distinguishes corruption from the fraud, condemned by society and practiced secretly. There are no secret crimes in Judaism since all is known by G-d.

The Perpetrator’s Moral Problems

Over and above any effect that cheating in school may have on future employers, on fellow students, or on the scholastic achievements of the cheat, Judaism stresses the moral damage done to the perpetrator. This applies to all ethical and immoral actions, making restitution and punishment only partial considerations. Far more important is the necessity for the guilty person to rectify the moral imbalance through recognition of the fault and determination not to repeat it. Until this is done, the account with Heaven remains unpaid.
Dr. Tamari is the former chief economist of the Office of the Governor at the Bank of Israel, and the founder of the JCT Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility.