I came across an article today about PwC Canada taking “remediation steps” after 1,200 of its employees were caught cheating on training tests and it made me start to wonder about the costs and frequency of cheating in all employee training.

I have an old college friend that is now a professor at Stanford University with a specialty in deception and the psychology of lying that can go on and on for hours about the effects that social media and online behaviour has had on normalizing, if not rewarding, cheating in the last decade – you can view a more succinct analysis with his Ted Talk if you want. But the fact is that he and other professor friends acknowledge what statistics bear out as true in North America, the frequency of cheating in 2022 is multiples more than 10-20 years ago. I would hazard that if the research was to be done, the same could be said for elementary and secondary education, occupational training, and all learning in general.

When I was in school, the fear of being expelled and blackballed from all Universities in North America seemed to keep me on the right side of the tracks. At least that’s the “lie” that I’ve told myself for years, but it was probably more to do with the fact that there was no high-speed internet, cloud storage, or connected devices in my pockets than any moral virtue or sickening fear. I didn’t have a calculator that connected to Google. I didn’t have the world’s answers at my fingertips, I had card indexes, libraries where if the book was out, you weren’t getting the answers you needed.

Ultimately, there was less cheating (not NO cheating) when I was young, not because we were morally better or the penalties were higher, but because it was harder to cheat and the access wasn’t as easy as it is today. At least this is what I’ve been told by the professors I consulted.

They’ve also informed me that we, as a society, have normalized “searching” for the answers as a better solution than “having” the answers. Its more efficient. There’s only so much memory space after all.

But what about the ethical costs of this normalization? What about situations where “having” the answer is a professional standard? What about critical situations where “having” the answer is life or death, things like occupational health and safety?

I’m not qualified to speak to the ethical costs. I have my opinions and thoughts. I’d welcome the debate, and I think I’ve done some unbiased research in the subject, but I’ll table that for a different forum.

When it comes to professional standards, well, it cost PWC $950,000 in fines, a very bad image for the brand whose services revolve around trust and business transparency, and then of course it puts into question the validity of the accounting designation of 1,200 employees. PWC isn’t alone by the way, KPMG Australia went through the same scandal with 1,100 staff (including 250 auditors) and was fined $450,000 with 12% of staff receiving disciplinary action of some form.

When it comes to health and safety, well, just the other day the Construction Industry Training Board ordered 6,000 skills card holders to re-sit their health and safety tests after widespread cheating was uncovered at test centers in the UK. So obviously its happening there too.

David Myrol wrote in 2015 that online OHS training had two problems that facilitate cheating: identity verification and proctoring. Many organizations are moving towards online training as the main method of educating their people in workplace health & safety. There are several reasons for this technology shift. Online training allows for greater flexibility in terms of scheduling, improved consistency of the content and it can be much more cost-effective when dealing in economies of scale. Operationally, online training makes a lot of sense for many organizations.

However, the costs of somebody not “having” the information because of cheating could be their life, the lives of others, and the financial wellbeing of your organization.

The PWC case serves as a reminder that if your doing online OHS training, you really need to be thinking about “cheating” as a common and normalized occurrence, as something that you need to factor into your workflow and not treat as a morality issue. Your employees are going to “share” and “look-up” answers if they have the opportunity (they don’t see that as cheating, but you do, and you should), and you might be able to check off that you’ve done your training with a completion report, but that won’t hold up in a due diligence argument in court, or an audit, and it certainly won’t create a safe workplace.

So what should you do?

Here are some quick recommendations.

  1. Have some form of identity verification to prove the person assigned the training is taking the training
  2. Randomize quiz questions, have extra quiz questions, and/or ask situational quiz questions
  3. Have reinforcing training/quizzes at another time to test that the knowledge actually stuck
  4. Verify offline in meetings, lunchrooms, on-the-job and in the moment your safety message or the core principles of the safety training
  5. Reinforce whenever possible that your intent is to protect employees and not to check a box, what cheating is in your organization, and why its so hazardous

Of course, if you’d like to talk more about learning psychology, adult learning and development, occupational health and safety programs, and how to build a solution that teaches, reinforces, and builds a safety culture, we’d love to chat with you more about what further strategies you can take, and more importantly, how to actually implement them.