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February 16, 2011 | Volume 5 | Number 2
February 16, 2011
By LaMarcus Bolton and Matthew J. Grawitch, PhD
Workplace deviance is prevalent and costly, so it is a major concern for practically all organizations. Accordingly, many researchers over the past few decades have sought to increase its understanding and prediction. These early approaches tended to focus on individual-level factors that could be used to profile the deviant employee. However, there is increasing evidence that organizations may be unknowingly fostering a dysfunctional culture of deviancy, which ultimately facilitates, rather than impedes, such detrimental behaviors. Here, we provide a brief overview of workplace deviance, highlight major approaches in the way it is studied, discuss how organizations may unknowingly act as facilitators, and provide some recommendations for practitioners to address workplace deviance.
Overview of Workplace Deviance
Over the years, workplace deviance has been referred to by a variety of names—counterproductive work behavior (Spector et al., 2006), antisocial behavior (Robinson & O’Leary-Kelly, 1998), misbehavior in organizations (Sagie, Stashevsky, & Koslowsky, 2003), dark side of organizational behavior (Griffin & O’Learly-Kelly, 2004), organizational misbehavior (Vardi & Wiener, 1996), non-compliant behavior (Puffer, 1987), and cyber loafing (Lim, 2002). Robinson and Bennett (1995) defined workplace deviance as “voluntary behavior… that violates significant organizational norms and in doing so threatens the well-being of an organization, its members, or both” (p. 556). These negative behaviors include abuse, sabotage, production deviance, theft, and withdrawal (Spector et al., 2006), as well as organizationally- and interpersonally-directed behaviors (Robinson & Bennett, 1995).
Workplace deviance is quite prevalent and costly to organizations. In fact, as many as 75% of employees have stolen from their respective organizations (McGurn, 1988), and 33-75% of all employees have engaged in deviant behaviors of some sort (Harper, 1990). These estimates may even be higher today because of the prevalence of technology-facilitated deviance (Lim, 2002). Additionally, workplace deviance results in many negative outcomes. For example, in terms of cost, employee workplace theft has been estimated to range between $10 billion and $120 billion annually (Bourke, 1994; Murphy, 1993). There are also additional costs incurred through the negative effect on performance (Dunlop & Lee, 2004), lowered quality, lost work time, medical and legal expenses, and a damaged public perception (Litzky, Eddleston, & Kidder, 2006; Van Fleet & Griffin, 2006).
With workplace deviance being so prevalent and costly to organizations, researchers have attempted to study individual-level factors that can predict deviant behavior, hoping to be able to profile the deviant employee. Certain types of individuals appear to enter organizations with a predisposition to engage in deviant behaviors. Some of the factors linked to a predisposition to engage in deviant behavior include cognitive ability (e.g., Dilchert, Ones, Davis, & Rostow, 2007), personality (e.g., Bolton, Becker, & Barber, 2010), and even genetics (e.g., Brennan, 1998). Unfortunately, this perspective tends to downplay the role of organizational factors in facilitating deviant behaviors (Van Fleet & Griffin, 2006).
Dysfunctional Culture of Deviancy
Previous research has also suggested that organizations can increase workplace deviance by creating stressful environments (e.g., Fox, Spector, & Miles, 2001) and producing a sense of injustice (e.g., Cohen-Charash & Mueller, 2007). One of the prominent ways that organizations contribute to workplace deviance is by creating and sustaining a dysfunctional culture. A dysfunctional culture is one that, “…constrains or limits individual- and group-level capabilities and/or that actually encourages and rewards mediocre individual- and group-level performance” (Van Fleet & Griffin, 2006, p. 699). This type of culture is one that creates and supports a vicious cycle of workplace deviance.
There are two primary ways that a dysfunctional culture may form and sustain itself. First, although organizational culture develops from a plethora of sources, senior leadership is perhaps the most powerful determinant (e.g., Appelbaum & Roy-Girard, 2007), as they are the ones who initially establish an organization’s values and norms. Unfortunately, a “toxic” leader (Seeger, Ulmer, Novak, & Sellnow, 2005) is likely to have a negative effect on organizational values and norms. These toxic leaders are not necessarily inherently bad, but they can indirectly affect organizational culture due to their focus on self-interests and accomplishing only short-term organizational goals (Appelbaum & Roy-Girard, 2007). In fact, the more senior the toxic leader in the organization’s hierarchy, the more likely subordinates are to follow suit and behave in similar ways (Finkelstein, 2005).
Senior leaders ultimately set the foundation upon which all subsequent norms and values are built. For example, if a senior leader is known for taking company materials home for personal use (i.e., theft) or cutting corners in one’s work (i.e., production deviance), others within the organization will likely recognize these behaviors and encode them as appropriate, leading to the formation of norms and, eventually, institutionalizing the thieving behaviors and negative values within the organization’s culture. In other words, the senior leader’s values and behaviors are indirectly taught to subordinates, which ultimately shapes and rationalizes deviant behavior (Litzky et al., 2006; Van Fleet & Griffin, 2006). In fact, prior research on theft and other workplace deviance suggests that managers often play a role in their subordinates’ deviancy (Greenberg, 1997; Thau, Bennett, Mitchell, & Marrs, 2009). In a popular anecdotal case, Enron executives engaged in unethical and deviant behavior, which encouraged many subordinates to follow suit—institutionalizing a dysfunctional culture of deviancy that ultimately played a large role in the company’s demise.
The second prominent way a dysfunctional culture may sustain itself is through social pressures stemming from coworker behaviors. Individuals (especially recent entrants into an organization) often scan their immediate environments for information regarding norms, values, and general appropriate behavior. Thus, others serve as role models. In a case of a dysfunctional culture, these negative role models may influence an individual’s own deviant behavior (e.g., MacLean, 2001). In one case noted by Eddleston, Kidder, and Litzky (2002), senior bartenders taught new employees to ignore certain policies so that tips could be increased.
Even if an organization does not have a dysfunctional culture, deviant sub-cultures may still emerge among individuals. The sub-cultures may take precedence over formal organizational norms and values (Parilla, Hollinger, & Clark, 1988). As Litzky and colleagues (2006) suggest, groups with deviant sub-cultures may provide adequate social support for deviant behaviors, while simultaneously helping members of the group avoid the stigmatization and guilt that often accompanies deviance. In fact, research suggests that even with other factors controlled, the deviant behavior of a group is a significant predictor of an individual’s deviancy (Robinson & O’Leary-Kelly, 1998). Not surprising, such a contagion effect has even been found with other antisocial behaviors, such as swearing (Baruch & Jenkins, 2007).
How can senior management prevent dysfunctional cultures?
Based upon the two primary ways that dysfunctional cultures are formed and sustained, there are several recommendations that may help to impede deviant behaviors and, subsequently, a negative culture:
1. Eliminate toxic leaders and deviant employees: Both toxic leaders and deviant employees, in their own respective ways, establish and sustain dysfunctional cultural norms. Eliminating them removes the notion that deviancy is acceptable.
2. Reward pro-social behavior/Reprimand deviant behavior: To effectively communicate (in) appropriate behavior, organizational rewards and punishments should be tied directly to them. For example, helping a coworker complete a task may result in praise from one’s immediate supervisor, whereas abusing break privileges may result in a verbal warning.
These two suggestions play a large role in creating an ethical climate—the shared perceptions of what is ethically-correct behavior (Victor & Cullen, 1987). Prior studies have suggested that the ethical climate of an organization significantly impacts the ethical behavior of its employees (e.g., Deshpande, George, & Joseph, 2000; Fritzsche, 2000; Litzky et al., 2006). Additionally, research in the antisocial realm also suggests that workplace deviance can be partially predicted from the presence of an ethical climate (Peterson, 2002).
Vidaver-Cohen (1998) offered suggestions for creating and sustaining an ethical climate. For instance, she proposed that emphasizing an employee focus and concern within an organization’s mission statement may help facilitate a more moral climate. More importantly, however, she suggests that an organization may be most successful in creating an ethical climate by addressing the behavior exhibited by senior leadership. For example, since senior leadership often sets the foundation for an organization’s culture due to serving as role models (e.g., Finkelstein, 2005), they are in a high-leverage position to be the change that they seek and create a positive climate shift. This could be done quite simply by visibly engaging in ethical and pro-social behavior.
When leaders set an example by behaving ethically, subordinates may be less likely to feel pressured to engage in workplace deviance (Litzky et al., 2006). As another example, an organization may also have a positive effect on the workplace climate by adapting formal socialization practices and rituals. For instance, organizations could express the ethical climate underlying their business in new employee orientations and trainings. By addressing the issue of ethics during an employee’s initial entry and socialization, organizations may be in a better position to prevent the influence and spread of a dysfunctional culture (e.g., MacLean, 2001).
Summary and Conclusions
In closing, although workplace deviance is very prevalent and costly to organizations, strides have been made to better understand the phenomenon from intra-personal, inter-personal, and organizational perspectives. As discussed, pervasive workplace deviance may be a function of a dysfunctional culture of deviancy, which is primarily sustained from senior leadership and surrounding coworkers. Fortunately, such actions as creating an ethical climate may help to prevent the influence and spread of a potentially dysfunctional culture. Particularly, at minimum, one should seek to:
1. Cleanse the system
2. Model appropriate behavior
3. Tie specific (un)acceptable behaviors to punishments and rewards
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