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Marital infidelity linked to professional misconduct, study suggests

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Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
Individuals with a documented history of professional misconduct were more than twice as likely to be users of the Ashley Madison website than their peers without such a history.

People who cheat on their spouses are more likely to be involved in workplace misconduct, according to a provocative study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

That finding was true for all four groups looked at in the study — police officers, financial advisers, white-collar criminals and corporate executives.

“This is the first study that’s been able to look at whether there is a correlation between personal infidelity and professional conduct,” says Samuel Kruger, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Texas at Austin, in a released statement. “We find a strong correlation, which tells us that infidelity is informative about expected professional conduct.”

Kruger and his colleagues believe the finding has broader meaning as well, as they explain in their paper. “Our findings suggest that personal and professional lives are connected and cut against the common view that ethics are predominantly situational,” they write.

An unusual data source

To do the study, the researchers had to resolve their own ethical dilemma. The proxy they used for marital infidelity was data hacked from the Ashley Madison website, which advertises as a dating service for married people who want extramarital affairs. The hacking, which took place in 2015, purportedly exposed the names of more than 30 million customers.

“We have discussed the use of the data with many people, including attorneys, who confirm that the data are permissible to use for research purposes because the data are now in the public domain and available for research use in the same way that they are available to and used by the press,” say the researchers. “We believe it is also ethical to use the data, and the use of hacked data has become common both by the press and in academia.”

Once they felt comfortable with the data, the researchers looked to see if there was any correlation between the use of the Ashley Madison website and professional misconduct. They looked specifically at four groups totaling 11,235 individuals — police officers, financial advisors, white-collar criminals (people charged with fraud, insider trading and other crimes by the Security and Exchanges Commission), and chief executive officers (CEOs) and chief financial officers (CFOs).

The results were remarkably consistent. Individuals with a documented history of professional misconduct were more than twice as likely to be users of the Ashley Madison website than their peers without such a history. Among the study’s sample of 1,319 financial advisors who had engaged in misconduct, for example, 3.3 percent were found to be Ashley Madison customers. That compared to 1.4 percent of a demographically matched control group of advisors who had no history of misconduct. That difference was statistically significant, the researchers say.


Kruger and his colleagues also compared the companies with a CEO or CFO who was on the Ashley Madison customer list to companies with top executives who weren’t.  They found that having a CEO or CFO who used the site doubled the probability a company had been engaged in some kind of serious accounting or financial infraction, such as being the subject of a securities class action lawsuit.

“The influence that [Ashley Madison-user] CEOs and CFOs have on firm misconduct is consistent with the large impact that executives have on firm decisions more generally,” the researchers write.

Limitations and implications

The study comes with caveats. Most notably, people in the matched control groups may also have been having affairs — just not through the Ashley Madison site. They may also have been involved in professional misconduct, but not been caught at it.

Kruger and his colleagues believe, however, that their findings are strong enough to offer “compelling evidence that personal conduct is closely related to workplace actions.”

The findings may have another implication as well, they add.

“Our results show that personal sexual conduct is correlated with professional conduct,” says Kruger. “Eliminating sexual misconduct in the workplace could have the extra benefit of contributing to more ethical corporate cultures in general.”

FMI: You can read the study on the PNAS website.

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