Honesty and Integrity: The Traits People Most Want in Their Boss

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Honesty and Integrity: The Traits People Most Want in Their Boss

He who says there is no such thing as an honest man, you may be sure is himself a knave. (Bishop George Berkeley, Maxims Concerning Patriotism, 1740)

More people are flattered into virtue than bullied out of vice. (Alfred Adler, cited by P. Bottome, 1939)

Many studies have demonstrated the fundamental importance of honesty and integrity at work. The characteristic that people most want in their boss is honesty. It may be defined as: part of moral character that connotes positive and virtuous attributes such as integrity, truthfulness and straightforwardness, along with the absence of lying, cheating or theft.

Every organization would prefer to have honest, dependable and trustworthy employees. In some organizations like police forces, banks and the military it is essential. Hence they often invest a lot in techniques for assessing honesty and integrity and detecting deception when selecting employees. Equally, these techniques can be used to ’vet’ people in the organization or attempt to establish guilt after the event.

The sort of options people have to do honesty testing include: the lie detector (polygraph), reference checking or background investigations, drug testing, use of applications forms (biodata), integrity interviewing and personality testing.


Integrity tests, also called honesty tests, are pencil and paper questionnaires designed to assess a very wide variety of work-related behaviours. These include: dishonesty and general untrustworthiness, unauthorized use of company information, forgery.

• Alcohol/Drug abuse: selling, using on the job, coming to work with a hangover/intoxicated.

• Deception and deliberate misrepresentation: tax fraud and cheating, bribery, blackmail, job instability/excessive absenteeism, turnover/time theft, coming late to work, using sick-leave when not sick.

• Violent behaviour: physical assault on others at work.

• Theft of cash, merchandise and property: misuse of discount privileges, embezzlement, doing slow or sloppy work, failure to implement company policy.

• Alienating attitudes: the opposite of commitment and engagement, inattention to safety rules, causing preventable accidents, Ludditism and damage to property, wilful damage and waste, vandalism, poor time keeping, having unauthorized work breaks, sabotage and sexual harassment.

This list shows two things: first these behaviours go far beyond the simple concept of integrity and second the list contains diverse and unrelated issues. The idea, however, is that integrity/honesty is relevant to all of these behaviours because, in some sense, they all reflect a level of dishonesty.

Some tests try to veil or disguise their purpose. Others assume low integrity is associated with thrill-seeking, non-conformity and low conscientiousness. Many tests have traditionally been used either to screen out undesirable applicants, investigate crimes for current employees, vet those being considered for promotion or transfer, or just to assess the current moral beliefs of people within the organization. Integrity tests were typically used with supervisory level personnel, especially in retail and financial companies.


An employer interested in ’honesty’ screening has a number of different options:

1 Polygraph/lie detector. Original tests measured blood pressure, pulse, sweat gland activity and breathing. Newer models measure the electrical activity in the brain or voice stress. There is now serious doubt about its validity. It seems popularly accepted that eliciting an accurate confession depends more on the skills of the examiner than the characteristics of the testee.

2 Vetting. This is also called reference checking or background/biographical investigations. Essentially this involves checking up on what applicants have said or written about themselves and their past work, education and reward.

3 Drug testing. Taking urine and blood samples is useful and legal but some companies prefer not to do it because of charges of invasion of privacy. Also, these tests cannot always pick up those likely in the future to have addictive problems.

4 Application form/biographical data research. This method seeks retrospectively to look at the differences between honest and dishonest employees for signs of possible future problems.

5 Integrity interviewing. This is often little more than a structured interview that seeks to observe verbal, vocal and non-verbal signs of lying like higher voice pitch, speech errors, increased blinking, frequent swallowing, fast and shallow breathing and false smiles. It does require some considerable expertise. The jury remains out on the validity of these methods.

6 Personality tests and assessment. These come in very many forms, for instance: Graphological analysis, which has little or no evidence of validity; projective tests, where people tell stories about pictures they see and project their personality motives, but are still thought of as highly unreliable; and personality tests around issues of morality and conscientiousness.

What is the latest thinking around integrity tests?

First, it is agreed that these tests are certainly useful. They are valid enough to help prevent various problems in many different sectors.

Second, testing alone will not stop theft, dishonesty or sabotage as many other factors (than dishonest individuals) cause them. It is only part of the solution to the problem.

Third, integrity tests may be measuring aspects of human personality which are stable over time, though it is not certain which. That is, integrity may be thought of as a trait.

Fourth, there are problems in testing because some testing codes and standards insist that testees give informed consent on details about the test such as what it measures. This may not be the best thing to give the dishonest person, intent on dissimulation.

Fifth, there may be legal issues in how ’cut-off’ scores are used and labelled. One could classify people as pass/fail or from moderately to highly dangerous. How this information is used or recorded can cause expensive legal action, particularly in developed countries.

Sixth, integrity tests are used to ’select-out’, not ’select-in’. They are designed to help people screen out high-risk applicants not identify ’angels’.


Bennett, R., & Robinson, S. (2000). Development of a measure of workplace deviance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 349—60.

Griffin, R., & Lopez, Y. (2005). ’Bad Behaviour’ in Organizations. Journal of Management, 31, 988—1005.

Ones, D., & Viswesvaran, C. (1998). Integrity testing in organizations. In R. Griffin, A. O’Leary-Kelly and J. Collins (Eds). Dysfunctional behaviour in organizations. Vol 23B. Greenwich, CT: JA Press.

Robinson, S., & Bennett, R. (1997). A typology of deviant workplace behaviours. Academy of Management Journal, 38, 555—72.