Corporate Over-Regulation and the Occupy Movement
Substance Abuse in the Workplace

Deviant Behavior in the Workplace

Causes and Solutions to Deviant Behavior in the Workplace

I recently read an academic paper on deviant behavior in the workplace by Steven H. Appelbaum, Giulio David Iaconi and Albert Matousek, all of whom are faculty in the School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. I was intrigued by the title because I, myself, have written about behaviors that certainly qualify as deviant in my mind including bullying in the workplace and sexual harassment. The authors examine the impact on organizations of negative deviant behavior that violates organizational norms, policies or internal rules. The identified behaviors include sexual harassment, vandalism, rumor spreading, corporate sabotage, or otherwise unauthorized organizational behavior with negative consequences for the entity.

To me, bullying is one of the worst of the problems but wasn’t addressed in the study. As I have previously discussed, workplace bullying refers to repeated, unreasonable actions of individuals (or a group) directed towards an employee (or a group of employees), which are intended to intimidate, degrade, humiliate, or undermine, or which create a risk to the health or safety of the employee(s) including physical and emotional stress. Workplace bullying often involves an abuse or misuse of power. Bullying behavior creates feelings of defenselessness and injustice in the target and undermines an individual’s right to dignity at work. Other than sexual harassment, I don’t believe there can be a more destructive workplace behavior.

Returning to the paper, negative deviant behaviors include employee delinquencies such as not following the manager’s instructions, intentionally slowing down the work cycle, arriving late, committing petty theft as well as not treating co-workers with respect and/or acting rudely with co-workers. Unlike unethical behavior that violates societal rules, negative deviant behavior focuses on violation of significant organizational norms.

The authors point out that the impetus for the growing interest in deviant behavior is the increasing prevalence of this type of behavior in the workplace and the enormous costs associated with such behavior. One out of every four employees reported  having stolen at least once from their employers. Furthermore, incidences of negative workplace deviance are now soaring out of control, with nearly 95 percent of all companies reporting some deviance-related experience within their respective organizations. Up to 75 percent of employees have engaged in one form or another of the following deviant behaviors: theft, computer fraud, embezzlement, vandalism, sabotage or absenteeism. The estimated impact of widespread employee theft has been reported to be between $50 and $200 billion annually on the US economy. Researchers have pointed out that victims of interpersonal workplace deviance are more likely to suffer from stress-related problems and show a relatively decreased productivity, lost work time and a relatively high turnover rate (Henle et al., 2005). Thus, there is great incentive, financial and otherwise, for organizations to prevent and discourage any negative workplace deviance within their walls.

I believe the growth in deviant behavior is due to a general decline in civility in society which has translated into workplace behaviors that up until to recent times flew under the radar. These include the excessive use of offensive language and other aggressive behaviors, in-your-face, confrontational co-workers and supervisors, and the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter to make a co-worker’s life miserable by spreading lies or posting inappropriate pictures.

It seems as though more and more people are engaging in unhealthy behaviors in the workplace making some environments downright toxic. I recall a former student telling me about a supervisor she labeled “robo-e-mailer.” It seems this guy would send critical e-mails about an employee’s behavior to the supervisor’s, supervisor and all the way up the chain of command. Everyone in the organization knew about the problems and conflicts in the division. It got so bad that communication within the unit all but shut down, and that led to declining productivity, high turnover, and, ultimately, a change in leadership.

The best way to prevent deviant behavior from becoming the norm in the workplace is for managers to set a clear tone that it won’t be tolerated and establish penalties for those who go down that road. It is the same with unethical behavior in the workplace. The tone at the top must be one that establishes clear expectations and promotes acceptable behavior while taking action against unacceptable behavior. All too often in society one person or group in authority fails to act on inappropriate, self-serving behavior that negatively affects those who play by the rules and norms perhaps because they fear the possible consequences of taking remedial action (i.e., attacks by unsympathetic groups, harassment, and lawsuits). For the workplace to be a productive environment, leaders must lead. Management guru Peter Drucker said it best: Managers are leaders who do things right; leaders are people who do the right things.”

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 11, 2011