The Hawthorne effect | CQI | IRCA Skip to main content
A meeting taking place

The Hawthorne effect

Progress indicator

A meeting taking place
Published: 4 Mar 2024

If the outcome of an audit is influenced by the very act of carrying out the audit in the first place, how can we ever ensure accuracy? Welcome to the paradox that is the Hawthorne effect.

Ever feel like you're being watched? It's a natural human instinct that can cause us to change our behaviour – a phenomenon that some researchers have dubbed the Hawthorne effect.

It has ramifications in the world of internal auditing: if those being monitored change their behaviour as a result, the audit will not produce accurate results that are representative of normal day-to-day operations.

The original research involved workers at the Hawthorne Works in Illinois, US between 1924 and 1927. A study was conducted to see if changing light levels in the workplace had any effect in workers' productivity. Productivity did seem to improve when any change to lighting was made, but then decreased when the study ended. It was suggested the temporary productivity gain was down to the motivational effect on the workers who realised special attention was being paid to them.

Other changes to workplace conditions were also made, such as cleaning or relocating workstations, and were found to cause the same effect.

The Hawthorne effect is not without controversy, however, and it has a contentious history. Some scholars see it as anecdotal and point to many studies in which it was not found. Others say it's simply a variant of experimental demand effect, discovered by Martin Orne in 1973.

Orne proposed that if participants in psychological studies could work out what the purpose of the study was, they would change their behaviour to suit it.

However, experienced auditor and advisor, Andy Nichols CQP FCQI, is in no doubt that the Hawthorne effect is very real: "You see it everywhere. Think about the last time you were driving along a road and saw a police car or speed camera up ahead. You probably touched the brakes or came off the accelerator even though you weren’t over the speed limit. Knowing we are being watched definitely produces a behavioural action," he says.

Nichols also identifies regulatory inspections of schools and hospitals (for example by Ofsted in the UK) as being particularly open to a Hawthorn-type distortion. "Inspectors need to be aware that they are probably not seeing a typical day," he says.

"The key to minimising the Hawthorne effect actually lies in all parties involved being as open and truthful as possible."

Andy Nichols CQP FCQI, Auditor and advisor

Avoiding the effects

Clearly, influencing the outcome of an internal audit simply through carrying out that audit in the first place is undesirable. How do we avoid it? Perhaps by observing in secret or from a distance?

Nichols says that approach will only make matters worse. "Someone will always find out an audit is happening and word will spread like wildfire, then people will feel even more scrutinised and suspicious," he says. "The key to minimising the Hawthorn effect actually lies in all parties involved being as open and truthful as possible."

Nichols explains that his approach is all about taking the pressure off the people who are being assessed. "If someone on the factory floor thinks they are going to be in trouble for not doing something correctly, then they are bound to change their behaviour when they know an auditor is watching. But if management get involved and say 'this audit that’s happening – it’s a really good thing, it’s going to help us be even better than we already are', then employees know it’s not personal and they won’t react so defensively."

Nichols also says that internal quality audits that are requested, or 'pulled' are less open to distortion from the Hawthorne effect than those that are pushed onto organisations from outside – such as those coming from certification bodies.

"That’s because there is more to lose from an inspection that punishes a poor outcome, perhaps resulting in non-conformity. What this tells us is that we – as auditors – need to redefine our relationship with the organisations we are assessing. We need to make it clear that it’s the processes and procedure that are under the microscope, not the people carrying them out," he says.

Find more great content like this

Watch our video to learn how to find more Knowledge articles like this one, searching for specific authors or topics. 

Quality World

Get the latest news, interviews and features on quality in our industry leading magazine.

Access the CQI Quality Learning Hub

CQI Quality Learning Hub .png

Supporting your professional development

Join the SIG

Develop your knowledge and represent your industry.