Researchers from Baylor University are seeking to explain why some workers get away with sleazy behavior on the job.
After three studies that included over 1,000 employees, they are convinced they have found an answer: You can get away with breaking the rules or acting less-than-honorably as long as you’re productive. A valuable worker can afford to cross the line occasionally, while those whose performance lags cannot.
It’s an intuitive answer, but one that is no doubt often overlooked by disgruntled employees who wonder why they are being disciplined by their superiors or ostracized by coworkers while others have not.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Matthew J. Quade, a Baylor professor of business, wrote that productive workers who ignore rules or act unethically present a dilemma to employers because of their “contrasting worth.”
“The employees’ unethical behaviors can be harmful, but their high job performance is also quite important to the organization’s success,” he explained in the study, which was published in Personnel Psychology. “In this vein, high job performance may offset unethical behavior enough to where the employee is less likely to be ostracized.”
But that calculus is often flawed, argued Quade. If a worker is regularly engaging in unethical behavior, the employer will likely pay a big price for it down the road. As any observer of the subprime mortgage crisis might say, the short term gains of crooked business are often more than offset by major losses later on.
Unsurprisingly, the study authors concluded that employers should establish that they have no tolerance for unethical behavior from employees, no matter how good they are at their jobs.
Furthermore, they argue, employers should make clear that workers can come to organization leaders with complaints about unethical behavior from colleagues. This point is aimed not only at stopping poor behavior, but to prevent divisions among coworkers.
Another recent study found that employees are more likely to be stressed and unhappy at work when they perceive a lack of “organizational justice,” meaning that rules are not applied consistently or fairly.