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An exhausted onion trader catches forty winks on top of piles of his merchandise. Photo: Reuters

Hunger, thirst and fatigue, and their links to unethical behaviour

Model employees must be well-rested, their basic body needs well taken care of, so they can concentrate fully on the actions that really matter


Remember The Times when you were so hungry and poor you could not think of anything else affordable than a bowl of noodles?

That single-mindedness to satiate your hunger pangs may promote certain unethical behaviour but inhibit other types of unethical actions.

Before joining the National University of Singapore Business School, I conducted a series of five studies with colleagues at the Universities of Washington and Toronto on whether being deprived of physical needs, such as food, influences unethical conduct.

After all, we know too well of colleagues or from our own personal experience of working through without lunch and ignoring the need for food in the name of organisational productivity.

This is a phenomenon common in both developing and advanced economies. It is not uncommon to read about underpaid factory workers and labourers working long hours with little concern for their physical well-being.

At the other end of the scale, day traders have to be engaged when the market is open and cannot afford to break for lunch.

When people are in such states of hunger, they may engage in actions that are not in their long-term interests.

How so? In the case of food deprivation, one’s willpower is reduced and that makes the individual even more aroused and motivated to overcome the hunger, often coming in conflict with one’s long-term interests.

For instance, when individuals want to lose weight, they may be unable to resist the temptation to eat when hungry, making them gain more weight instead.

In one study, we analysed whether ethical behaviours were different between people who had refrained from eating for a considerable time period or just had a full meal.

Some corporate cultures subscribe to the notion that you cannot be a good employee unless you’re a tired one. Sam Yam Kai Chi from the National University of Singapore questions the wisdom of such a culture

To measure their unethical behaviour, they were given a series of geography and algebra multiple-choice questions to answer, with one of the options being “I don’t know”.

Some of the questions were obviously unsolvable whereas the “I don’t know” response would be appropriate and honest.

Individuals were also told that if they were able to answer all the questions, they stand to get extra monetary compensation, a free drink, or a snack of their choice.

So, if they answer all without checking the “I don’t know” option to win the prize, that behaviour is deemed as unethical.

We found individuals who were hungry cheated more, thereby attempting to answer all the questions than those who were not hungry. And when they cheated, they did so specifically to reduce their hunger pangs – that is, they tended to opt for the snack prize to quell their hunger but cheated less for the drinks or money than those who were not driven by hunger.

In other words, people who were hungry cheated selectively.

While food is what they would cheat more on, they cheated much less for non-food items compared to those who were not hungry.

The reason is that they are so singularly focused in their quest to satiate their hunger they channelled all their attention to satisfy that need, and hence cheat for food; but are less likely to lie, cheat or steal for reasons that do not address the immediate hunger pangs, even for cash.

We also found such unethical behaviour can be discouraged from operating by reminding people of ethics. When people are aware of an honour code or reminded of the organisation’s ethical values, they were less likely to succumb to temptation.

What do these findings imply for businesses?

Companies have cause for concern regarding the ethical behaviour of their employees. Physical deprivations of all kinds – hunger, thirst and fatigue – should not be encouraged even though they are difficult to prevent.

Some corporate cultures subscribe to the notion that you cannot be a good employee unless you’re a tired one. These findings question the wisdom of such a culture.

Model employees must be well-rested and their basic body needs well taken care of, so that they can concentrate on things that really matter.

Sam Yam Kai Chi is Assistant Professor of Management & Organisation at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not represent the views and opinions of NUS.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Deprivations spell trouble for firms