CPAs are respected for their subject matter expertise and high ethical standards. In the past several years, however, the unethical behavior of some CPA firm employees has led to increased public scrutiny. Cheating scandals involving the ethics portion of the CPA exam and other training courses by members of several CPA firms have thrown ethics into the spotlight and resulted in the largest SEC fines of accounting firms in history (https://www.sec.gov/news/press-release/2022-114). It is important for CPAs to recognize the threat posed by cheating and to develop an understanding of why it happens.

Ultimately, cheating is an individual decision, but why does one make this decision? Recent research by Smith, Emerson, and Maudlin (“Online cheating at the intersection of the dark triad and fraud diamond,” Journal of Accounting Education, vol. 57, December 2021, 100753, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaccedu.2021.100753) provides clues as to the individual and situational factors that underlie the cheating decision. The authors’ findings suggest that certain personality traits—known as the “dark triad”—influence elements of the fraud diamond and individuals’ ethical decision-making processes in predictable ways that appear to affect one’s intention to engage in unethical behavior. The study, which focuses solely on accounting majors, offers insights into the roots of the cheating scandals that have reflected poorly on the public accounting industry. With a better understanding of how and why cheating occurs in college, accounting firms may be able to better recognize and eliminate these behaviors in the workplace, protecting the reputation of the entire profession. As noted by Smith et al., students who successfully cheat once are likely to cheat again with greater frequency; more importantly, cheating in college has been linked to subsequent unethical behavior in the workplace.

Smith et al.’s research describes the results from a survey of 209 students majoring in accounting at two public universities, one in the South and one on the East Coast. Survey results showed that dark triad personality traits (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) directly and indirectly influence elements of the “fraud diamond” (opportunity, motivation, rationalization, and capability) and predict students’ intention to cheat, as well as actual cheating behaviors.

Academic Misconduct

Academic misconduct (cheating) is nothing new. Unfortunately, the opportunity for students to engage in academic misconduct has increased significantly over the past two decades. Online platforms such as Chegg, Quizlet, and Course Hero provide students with access to a vast collection of exam and assignment answers. Without the express permission of professors, using these resources for answers to specific questions or as general study aids constitutes academic misconduct. It can be thought of as the digital equivalent of a student who has taken an exam passing questions and answers on to a friend.

Chegg, a major player in the online homework assistance industry with 8 million users, describes their vision as “striving to improve the overall return on investment in education by helping students learn more in less time and at a lower cost.” When used properly and with permission, it is easy to see how its content could be beneficial to students; it is more likely, however, that the content will be used to inappropriately circumvent the learning process, and research has shown that many students use it for exactly this purpose. In fact, Chegg boasts about how its content can be used to complete assignments. For example, a window on its homepage exclaims, “Shoutout to Chegg Study for allowing me to knock out my homework in 30 minutes!” Chegg nominally has an honor code that states that using information from the platform to cheat on an exam or other graded work is a violation that could result in the student being banned from the platform. But because Chegg has said that it will not share the personal information of any student accused of honor code violations, the enforcement of this sanction or any other punishment is effectively an empty threat. Other providers are similarly hostile to allegations of misconduct. For example, Course Hero must receive a subpoena before releasing any information. Moreover, the relatively new threat of contract cheating on a broad array of industry certification exams is emerging. Under this scenario, the individual seeking a professional credential can contract with a third party who will remotely access the test taker’s computer and change the answers as needed—with a passing grade guaranteed.

Cheating using online platforms has obvious similarities to behaviors in recent CPA scandals. Sharing answers to the ethics portion of the CPA exam and training assignments appears substantively the same as using answers posted online when taking exams. Given the competitive nature of the job market for accounting students and the pressure on accountants to be seen as high performers early in their careers, the pressures faced by each group are broadly similar. Likewise, both groups are subject to challenging workloads and time constraints that can make it easier to rationalize the cheating decision.

Beyond the clear similarities between cheating on college assignments and the recent CPA scandals, decades of research have documented a connection between academic misconduct and workplace dishonesty. A recent systematic review of the research supporting the link between college cheating and workplace dishonesty further highlights the extent of the problem. (See F. Mulisa and A.B. Ebessa, “The carryover effects of college dishonesty on the professional workplace dishonest behaviors: A systematic review” Cogent Education, vol. 8, no. 1, 2021, pp. 1-23, https://doi.org/10.1080/2331186X.2021.1935408). The authors’ findings are illustrative of the problem, noting that there is a strong correlation between academic misconduct and dishonest behavior in the workplace. For example, one of the referenced papers revealed that cheating in college had a significant impact on unethical behavior on the job. Other research has specifically investigated business and accounting students and found that business students had more lenient attitudes regarding cheating. Although they understood ethical behavior, they still engaged in cheating behaviors and believed that it may be necessary to act unethically in their careers. Indeed, one study concluded that students in the field of business ranked highest in dishonesty. Even specific workplace behaviors such as overstating reimbursed expenses and falsely inflating hours worked have been associated with cheating in college. Other researchers found that employee integrity (or lack thereof) was directly associated with prior academic misconduct and that there was a strong relationship between academic cheating and fraud involving workers’ compensation.

The key takeaway from the above referenced research is that not only does bad behavior in college carry forward into the workplace—the attitudes and individual propensities underlying that behavior carry forward as well. Although this research may paint a grim picture, it highlights the enduring impact of academic misconduct in college and its relevance to the work-place, as well as the need to better understand what drives individuals to cheat.

Personality Traits

Not everyone cheats. Only a relatively small subset of employees committed the unethical acts that define the cheating scandals that have rocked the accounting profession. One factor that might differentiate those who cheat from those who do not is their underlying personality. There is an extensive array of personality research, but one line in particular—the dark triad—can be applied to cheating. The dark triad’s ominous name is matched by the personality traits it contains: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. The dark triad has been associated with such adverse phenomena as workplace fraud, interpersonal manipulation, cheating, and a variety of other counterproductive work behaviors. Interestingly, dark triad traits have been shown to occur at higher levels among business majors.

Narcissism, considered a love of self in popular culture, manifests itself in many other ways. Narcissists have a need for admiration and retain fantasies about power, intelligence, and success. Their relationships with other people can be characterized by a lack of empathy and manipulation. Machiavellianism can also be described by a lack of empathy and manipulation, but whereas narcissists are looking to satisfy their need for admiration, Machiavellians have an actual contempt for morality and believe in using others for their own benefit. Finally, psychopathy is perhaps the most understood of the three traits. Characteristics like superficial charm, impulsivity, cold emotion, and a general indifference to right and wrong are typical of psychopaths. Each of these traits occurs on a spectrum with all individuals exhibiting them to varying degrees, such as clinical versus subclinical psychopathy. Not all individuals with high levels of dark triad tendencies are as threatening as the definitions imply, or ultimately engage in cheating, yet research has identified clear associations between the elements of the dark triad and various forms of misconduct. Indeed, two 2016 CPA Journal articles by Barry Jay Epstein and Sridhar Ramamoorti recommended that auditors consider clients’ personality traits (especially the dark triad) as an additional risk factor when conducting audit engagements (“Today’s fraud risk models lack personality: Auditing with ‘Dark Triad’ individuals in the executive ranks,” http://www.nysscpa.org/1603-besr; “When reckless executives become dangerous fraudsters: Reward structures and auditing procedures need to be reformed to deter ‘Dark Triad’ personalities,” https://www.nysscpa.org/1611-besr). Accordingly, it seems prudent for management to be similarly aware of this risk among their employees as well; although the overall risk of audit firm personnel having high levels of dark triad traits may be lower than the overall population due to negative self-selection bias, the risk remains.

Fraud Diamond

Academic misconduct can be broadly defined as circumstances where students accept credit for the work of others without citation or authorization. If fraud can be categorized as an intentional misrepresentation or deception that may result in unauthorized benefits, it is clear that academic misconduct can be classified as academic fraud. Academic cheating and financial fraud differ only in degree, and many of the same psychological processes underlie each.

Conceptualizing academic misconduct as a type of fraud allows it to be analyzed through the lens of the fraud diamond, which describes the conditions necessary for fraud to occur. The presence of each of the elements does not necessarily mean that fraud will occur, only that it is more likely to occur. The fraud diamond is an incremental enhancement to the original fraud triangle, which included the elements of opportunity, motivation, and rationalization. The fraud diamond builds upon this by adding a fourth element—capability. That is, in addition to having ample opportunity and motivation to engage in the misconduct, people must be able to recognize the opportunity to engage in fraudulent behavior and believe that they have the requisite knowledge, skills, and abilities to succeed.

Can Personality Traits Explain Cheating?

The study presented in this article brings together the dark triad traits and the elements of the fraud diamond to better understand how and why cheating occurs. The accounting majors who participated in the study completed a survey to measure their level of dark triad traits, their perceptions related to the elements of the fraud diamond, their intention to use online homework assistance, and their ultimate engagement in those activities. They were instructed to give their honest feedback and were assured of anonymity.

Analysis of the data provided some interesting insights into how and why cheating occurs. First, results indicate that the three dark triad traits are each associated with the fraud diamond elements of capability, opportunity, motivation, and rationalization. Narcissism, as expected, was a predictor of a student’s perceived capability. Machiavellianism predicted perceived opportunity, and psychopathy was a predictor of both motivation and rationalization. Importantly, the survey results showed that the ability of a student to rationalize the use of online platforms was a consequence of the joint influence of their perceived capability, motivation, and perceived opportunity. Once a student was able to rationalize the decision, intention and action followed. Ominously, more than half of the students admitted to using homework assistance websites at least occasionally, and nearly 20% use them frequently or very frequently.

Exhibit 1 shows a simplified version of the model tested. All the illustrated paths were found to be positive and statistically significant. Except for Machiavellianism, each of the components of the dark triad was found to indirectly predict cheating intentions and actions. Moreover, the combined influence of one’s motivations, perceptions of one’s individual capabilities, and available opportunities was directly associated with the ability to rationalize one’s decision. Once an individual reconciled their internal moral code with the act, intention and action followed.

Exhibit 1

Theoretical Model

These results are informative because they show how a student’s personality interacts with the ability to rationalize and engage in cheating. They are also useful to CPAs and accounting firm managers. Because the nature of using an online homework assistance tool has similarities to the well-publicized accounting scandals referenced earlier, it follows that the personality traits of accounting professionals may interact with the elements of the fraud diamond to influence their own cheating behaviors in much the same way as those of the students who participated in this study. These findings are even more relevant to CPA firms when considered in conjunction with the literature connecting academic cheating with unethical workplace behavior.

How Can Cheating Be Reduced?

Personality traits are not easily changed, so it is futile and likely unethical to attempt to alter the personalities of either students or professionals. It is therefore necessary to change their underlying perceptions related to their motivation, minimize the available opportunities to engage in negative behavior, and curtail their ability to rationalize the cheating decision. This research study provides examples of how these perceptions can be influenced in the academic setting; many of these can be adapted to the profession. For example, emphasizing the need to truly understand material to obtain and retain an internship or entry-level professional position may demotivate students to use unauthorized outside resources. Similarly, professionals may also be disincentivized to access unauthorized materials if they believe that the subject matter being tested is important to their professional development. Students are less motivated to cheat when they have a high level of mastery over the subject matter. This is likely also true in the professional arena; one way to increase feelings of confidence would be to provide a broad array of study material in a format similar to that which will be seen on the formal assessment. Accounting firms could also design and provide more question sets for training. Developing subject-matter expertise is an excellent way to curtail cheating behaviors.

Research among students has shown that stress can be a major contributing factor to cheating behaviors; this is presumably true in the professional community as well. Although public accounting is widely regarded as a stressful profession, there are things that a firm can do to minimize employees’ stress and resulting burnout. CPAs are constantly under pressure to complete work, bill hours, and complete training assignments. They may rationalize cheating because they may believe that they should devote their time to “more important” client service activities. Using someone else’s answers may be faster than doing the assessment themselves. By allowing more time to complete training, the time pressure and the ability of an employee to rationalize cheating may be reduced. Time budget pressure can be lowered through permitting flexible work schedules, maximizing the use of technology, and prioritizing tasks to ensure that the most critical projects are completed first. If employees are not stressed about their formal workload, they will have more opportunities to train and prepare for graded assessments.

In some cases, cheating behaviors are driven by social pressure to gain favor or avoid disapproval, or they are founded on a desire to develop relationships with others. Rather than covertly reprimanding offenders, accounting firms should publicly and prominently communicate transgressions and sanctions throughout the firm. This can result in social disincentives driven by publicizing of the offenses.

As with financial fraud, the best way to prevent cheating is by denying employees the opportunity to do so. Using multiple versions of an assessment minimizes the possibility that employees will collude and share answers. Direct supervision of in-person tests and the use of remote proctoring and website blocking software for those tests given online have been shown to deter cheating behavior. In addition, other electronic devices such as cellphones and smart watches should be banned from the testing environment.

At a very basic level, whether in academia or in practice, the cheating decision is the consequence of an individual’s rational calculus that weighs the perceived benefits against the risks. If an individual believes the risk of being caught as low, or if they think that the potential punishment is insignificant, they are more likely to engage in the behavior. Thus, if firms communicate the promise of swift and severe repercussions for cheating, employees will be less motivated to do so. In addition, clear knowledge of the harsh consequences if one is caught makes it harder for an employee to rationalize the decision.

Rationalization is often lost in discussions related to financial fraud, because it represents the internal and unobservable ways that people neutralize their cognitive dissonance regarding the fraudulent act to remain within their moral comfort zone. This is especially true when it comes to cheating; an employee’s ability to rationalize cheating is the critical piece linking opportunities and motivations. Nevertheless, it may be possible for employers to take proactive action that effectively hampers employees from easily justifying cheating. Perhaps the most important way this can be done is through education. Research has shown that some students have an inadequate understanding of what constitutes academic dishonesty. Academic institutions and public accounting firms alike have an opportunity to more explicitly define dishonesty, update this definition as new technology arrives, and ensure that students and employees are aware of this definition. Likewise, firms need to engage in frank discussions about integrity and clearly convey their expectations in that regard. They need to deliberately communicate that all cheating is material and that there are no minor infractions of integrity policies; to that end, creating a culture of integrity is imperative. Firms must encourage and promote integrity within the organization from the top down by setting a positive example and reinforcing integrity as a core value. Making employees aware that cheating not only hurts the individual but also damages the firm and its reputation should help minimize these behaviors.

Aaron Fritz, PhD, CPA, is an assistant professor at Salisbury University, Salisbury, Md.
David J. Emerson, PhD, CPA, is an associate professor at Salisbury University.
Kenneth J. Smith, DBA, CPA, is a professor and chair of the department of accounting and legal studies at Salisbury University.