- In 1970, Lance Shotland and Wallace Berger made an experiment to link individual values to actual behaviour: they studied female line workers and hypothesised that those who return pencils after the completion of the questionnaire place higher importance on honesty compared to non-returners. Indeed, non-returners did not regard honesty as highly; they gave higher regard to helpfulness instead. This result indicates that honesty and some social practices may have an inconsistent relationship.
A tip about Russian business culture offered by WorldBusinessCulture.com on their website states: “Law-breaking and rule avoidance have been promoted to an art-form in a country where the state has, for centuries, been seen as the enemy.” This statement reflects and further cultivates Westerners’ stereotypical understanding - that people from the former Soviet countries are dishonest when it comes to doing business.
The usual argument goes that the inheritance of the old Soviet economic order has spoiled people in these countries and thus, it is expected that their individual values determining business behaviour do not support a Western view of business ethics. We believe that the most telling individual value in this context is honesty (see also Inset) and the most relevant group to study is Russians - the nation with huge economic and intellectual resources, yet, forms a significant minority in many countries of the world. To test this assumption, we posed two questions: first, how important is value honesty, in general, among Russian employees of the former Soviet countries? And secondly, what are the most important determinants for a person to assess honesty as a guiding principle in their life or not?
Honesty Was Amongst Their Most Important Values
In order to answer these questions, we studied the values of 1,300 Russian employees living in Russia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The four countries shared a similar Soviet economic order for more than 50 years. We asked employees to rank their own values, including honesty. Thereafter, we asked them to carry out the same task but this time, they had to speculate how their co-workers would rank the same list of values.
Contrary to expectations, it appeared that on average, honesty was amongst the most important values for Russian employees. Family security was the only value to exceed honesty, and responsibility was quite close to honesty, but other values lagged far behind. Thus, the challenges with business ethics in the former Soviet countries do not seem to stem from employees’ “unethical“ value structure in general. If Russians do behave as ‘dishonest’ from a Western point of view, it may be the case of a ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fast asleep; for the time being, the conditions are missing for honesty and responsibility to manifest at work.
Linking Family Security and Honesty
However, the importance of honesty varied considerably between the four countries. We found Russians living in Lithuania ranking honesty the highest, followed by their counterparts in Estonia, Russia and Latvia. We therefore concluded that national culture is perhaps a less powerful determinant of individual values, and that societal influence should be considered: it probably makes a difference whether you do business with Russians (or Indians or Irish or any other nation) in one country or another.
This leads to our third finding: the assessment of co-workers’ value honesty was the best predictor for the focal person’s importance of honesty. This is to say that the importance of honesty is the result of a social learning process, constructed via constant reflection, feedback and interaction with others. If colleagues are perceived dishonest, it may be because honesty is not a defining value for a respondent herself. This elevates the role of collectivism that is generally believed to hold for Russians. Our results also revealed that certain other personal values forecasted whether an employee would regard honesty as very important. Namely, those who ranked highly the values such as imaginative, capable, comfortable life and broadminded were likely considering honesty as relatively unimportant. The opposite is true for family security - if this value is very important for a person, he/she tends to apply it to honesty as well.
Under the Influence of Peers
What can be concluded from our research? Evidently, the Russian population does not constitute a homogenous cultural group when it comes to individual values, at least as far as honesty is concerned. The historical socio-economic environment, i.e. the heritage of the Soviet system certainly plays a role, but not to the extent to downplay country differences. Besides, we could not find that older employees with longer tenure in the Soviet system assessed honesty differently from younger colleagues, nor were managers any different from workers. We were also surprised that gender did not play any relevant role in honesty assessment - usually (Western) women score higher in ethicality and integrity tests.
If we are to believe that ethical behaviour follows, among other factors, from individual values and wish to evaluate whether honesty is important for a person (in the pre-employment assessment, for example) then two paths of inquiry may be most fruitful: finding out what the person thinks of his/her immediate peers in terms of honesty and how important are the values of a competing side of benevolence, including honesty for him/her, i.e. hedonism and accomplishment. Among Russian employees, enhancing the ethical climate in organisations should first and foremost be focused at shaping the collective understanding of what is acceptable and what is not, instead of dealing with particular individuals. It seems that the influence that comes from peers might just be the right Prince waking up the Russian Sleeping Beauty.