Employee Relations

What Employers Can Do to Prevent Employees from Engaging in Deviant Work Behaviors

Employee perceptions largely govern the workplace – if an employee perceives they are being treated unfairly in the workplace their first reaction may be to retaliate.  These reactions can be manifested in workplace deviance, which negatively impacts other individuals in the organization, as well as the organization as a whole.

What Is Workplace Deviance?

Workplace deviance behaviors are acts based on intentions to cause damage, discomfort, or punishment to the organization or other individuals within the organization. Deviant behaviors can include smaller offenses like intentionally working slower or could be as drastic as sabotage of work.

Why Does Deviant Behavior Occur?

Workplace deviance will often occur when employees feel a psychological contract has been violated. A psychological contract is a set of beliefs or unstated agreement between the employee and the organization (or individuals within the organization) of their obligations to one another. A common psychological contract many employees possess is: If they complete their tasks on time and work hard, they will receive a paycheck and remain an employee of the organization. Because the psychological contract is often vague and based on the perceptions/beliefs of the individual, it is often hard to determine or control exactly what the employee will perceive as fair. Deviance may occur when the employee perceives they are maintaining their part of the agreement, while the organization or other individuals within the organization are not. Over time, perceptions of unfairness and inequitable treatment trigger deviant behaviors. Perceiving a breach in the psychological contract, the employee sets out to reestablish equity within the workplace. As a result, disengagement, anger, revenge and other negative behaviors may transpire, bringing full attention to the employee and situation at hand. The outcome and severity of the deviant behaviors are dependent upon a variety of factors, including individual differences (some individuals may be more disposed to engage in deviant behaviors) and the severity of the situation.

Practical Implications

Employees engaging in deviant work behaviors can have detrimental consequences to both the organization and other workers. The good news is that there are ways to minimize or even prevent these deviant behaviors.
  • Communication. The first, and perhaps most obvious solution, is for the employer to attempt to fulfill the psychological contract. Since the employer may not always know what the employee perceives or believes, this may not always be possible. Therefore, it may be useful for employers to reduce negative feelings when they know a psychological contract has been violated by explaining to the employee why it occurred and attempting to “make up” for this breach. Finally, employers can strive to create an environment where employees are able to express their concerns, anger or frustrations to a trusted supervisor. This can be done through various means, such as employee attitude surveys or anonymous comment boxes.
  • Selection.  Hiring employees that have self-control is important because these individuals will be more likely to self-regulate their negative emotional reactions in less than ideal situations.
  • Training. Providing training to current employees in emotional regulation when there is a perceived violation of the psychological contract can be useful.  Additionally, training supervisors to listen and respond to employee concerns or perceived violations can allow them to monitor for any indication of a perceived contract breach and to intervene when the situation arises, perhaps preventing the deviant behavior from occurring entirely.
When attempting to prevent these behaviors it is most important to remember that the psychological contract is based on beliefs and perceptions of the employee. Therefore, the organization should do their best to not only monitor these feelings, but also be explicit with their policies and attempt to mold these perceptions into realistic beliefs and expectations.

Interpretation by:

Elizabeth Allen

The DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Bordia, P., Restubog, S., Tang, R. (2008). When Employees Strike Back: Investigating Mediating Mechanisms Between Psychological Contract Breach and Workplace Deviance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93 (5). 1104-1117.