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When Good Employees Go Bad


by Robin Gerrow

Managers Need to Recognize When Employees are Giving Too Much

Have you had that moment of surprise when you find out your favorite co-worker or star employee ends up being the one guilty of an unexpected infraction at work? It could be that all the extra effort they put into their jobs is the real culprit.

Gabi Eissa, assistant professor of organizational behavior in the Department of Management at San Diego State University, and Scott W. Lester, professor in Management & Marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, wondered what drove those good employees to engage in unethical behavior. Their findings, “How and When Good Soldiers Become Bad Apples: a Resource-Based Model,” will be presented at the Networking Reception, April 4, 6-8 p.m. at  the SIOP Annual Conference in National Harbor, Maryland just outside of Washington, DC.

Specifically, the authors wanted to consider the cost of organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) to those employees who engage in this behavior consistently. Supervisors generally want employees to engage in OCB— a positive behavior that is not necessarily part of the formal structure or reward system—as it is a benefit to the organization and individuals. Research has shown that OCB, at least in the beginning, results in positive feelings and job satisfaction for the employee as well. The team hypothesized that performing too much OCB could ultimately lead to unethical behavior.

The results of their study could have implications for work-life balance interventions, one of the topics on  SIOP’s Top 10 Workplace Trends for 2019.

“Have you ever done something wrong at work?” Eissa asked. “In many situations, good employees find themselves doing bad things, such as engaging in unethical behaviors toward the organization and its members. The question of ‘why good employees may do bad things’ was a question that intrigued me for a long time.”

Helping fellow employees and going above and beyond at work can take its toll, so the pair looked at the link between OCB and emotional exhaustion, and how that ultimately impacts unethical behavior at work. Another factor they examined was the perceived workload of employees.

“Studying OCB is fascinating given that most people believe that it’s antithetical to unethical behavior, whereas we’ve all been in situations where this is not necessarily the case,” he said. “In this specific study, I was interested in examining ‘under what circumstances’ those good employees, who frequently engage in OCBs, are more or less likely to do engage in bad behaviors.”

So, what happens when you have too much of a good thing?

In a two-wave study, the researchers surveyed 134 sets of employee-supervisor-coworker triads from a variety of organizations across the United States who were measured on perceived workload, rate of daily interpersonal helping (i.e., OCB), emotional exhaustion and unethical behavior.

They found that, in some cases, the resources required by employees to engage in daily OCB activities such as helping coworkers problem-solve, build strategy, and acquire information, can become depleted with overuse, resulting in self-regulatory impairment. When employees perceive that their workload is excessive, they are more likely to feel they have limited resources to continue performing OCBs, which may increase impairment and the likelihood that they will engage in unethical behaviors as a result.

Helping employees find the balance between interpersonal helping with coworkers and keeping a reserve of self-regulatory resources is a balancing act the managers need to consider.

“While OCB is key to the efficient and effective functioning of organizations, it’s a double-edged sword,” Eissa said. “First, managers must become aware that too much of a good thing does not always lead to positive things. Because OCB requires time and energy, employees become exhausted when performing these behaviors, leading them to become bad employees eventually. Second, while OCB is important, supervisors must be clear in terms of what is expected from their employees so that they won’t take on additional unnecessary responsibilities.

“Additionally, supervisors must create realistic expectations,” she continued. “When employees and supervisors jointly address expectations, employees are more satisfied. Finally, supervisors would benefit from endorsing a number of initiatives that help create a workplace that facilitates, and guarantees, employee cognitive and physical rejuvenation such as a cafeteria, or lactation room.”

Eissa said this research has plenty of room to grow, and he is looking forward to expanding the inquiry into other ways employees engage in OCB.

“OCBs come in different forms and shapes and may target the organization or its individuals, Eissa said. “While this study focused on interpersonal helping, I am interested in examining whether different types of OCBs may have similar effects on unethical behavior. I am interested to see if individual differences in personality may also play a role in this process.  Given the importance of OCB at organizations, I hope future research continues to examine this research inquiry, helping both researchers and practitioners alike benefit from OCB and eradicate its potential costs.”

For more information contact Dr. Gabi Eissa at: geissa@sdsu.edu.