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The Lucifer Effect: Is there such a thing as a ’bad employee’?

Theft. Habitual tardiness. Absenteeism. Neglect of duty. Workplace harassment. 

Have you encountered any of the above in the workplace Collectively, these are some examples of a wide range of behaviors known as counterproductive work behavior (CWB), which can negatively affect a company and its operations. 

I once had a client whose employee, after being a diligent worker for the first few years, was later discovered to have been stealing from the company. The reason? He saw an opportunity to earn a little extra on top of the minimum wage he was getting. In this instance, the employee made a conscious choice to do the wrong thing for short-term gain. Is this a case, therefore, of a bad employee or a bad company? The obvious answer is the former—why would the company be at fault when the employee made a choice to steal?Scientific research will show us, however, that what is seemingly obvious may not always be right. Renowned Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo spoke in detail about a phenomenon called the Lucifer Effect, which talks about the psychological and environmental processes that can make good people do bad things. We’ve always thought that “one bad apple spoils the bunch,” but in reality, it can actually be the other way around—the “bunch” is actually responsible for spoiling the one apple! In the case of my client, was it possible that the company unwittingly contributed to make conditions ripe for the offense to occur? 

Successfully addressing CWB within your organization requires a deep dive to understand what the likely causes are and the best courses of action available. While every company will have different circumstances and situations, some corporate best practices I have seen over my academic and professional career include: 

Revisit your company culture. In the stressor-emotion psychological model, counterproductive work behaviors are merely a response to stressors found in the organization. These stressors can include quantitative work overload, role ambiguity, occupational constraints and perceived injustice, to name a few. To guard against these from happening, company leaders must take an active role in promoting a healthy corporate culture. For starters, be clear on your company core values and be conscious about how leaders and employees live it on a day to day basis. Are these values just good on paper, or do you have concrete examples from your employees? Invest in training company managers on how to be open to feedback and to help them understand the importance of having regular check-ins with their teams. Consider also reducing the over-reliance on annual engagement surveys—instead, conduct pulse surveys that are shorter but done more frequently, giving leaders more relevant feedback about how people are feeling at any given time. Having a good corporate culture not only reduces instances of CWB but can also result to lower turnover, higher employee engagement and better financial performance. 

2. Invest in organizational support. Some companies have been undergoing restructures at a painfully frequent rate. There are some where restructures have happened nearly once every financial quarter. This has consequently resulted in work environments riddled with survivors working through anxiety and reduced organizational commitment. To manage this, company leaders should clearly explain the rationale for the restructures and make themselves available to employees who have fears and concerns about their situation. Accepting job losses is hard enough, so don’t subject people to a death by a thousand cuts by not being transparent about the changes and what it means for them. For those who are leaving, explore investing in enhanced outplacement support. In today’s very fast-paced business environment, many employees have come to terms that no job is really 100 percent secure anymore; however, how you communicate this and what kind of support you provide your employees will set your company apart from everyone else. 

3. Review your company’s remuneration principles. Whether we like it or not, financial compensation is a major consideration for many people. How a firm compensates its employees can also determine how satisfied and committed they will be. A good example is the practice of many companies to incentivize employees based on the targets they achieve. While incentive and commission schemes can certainly boost one’s sales in the short term, there can be significant long-term damage if the said schemes are not designed well. Studies have shown that incentives based purely on quantitative targets are more likely to lead to counterproductive work behavior. Rather than going with purely numbers-based targets, consider including behavior-based outcomes too. This allows you to integrate the company core values into the work that your employees do and the rewards they receive for it. From my experience, “integrity” is a favorite among core values—does it really guide your employees in their actions, or is it just another buzzword hung on the wall in the company hallway?

The truth of the matter is, as long as there is a human element involved in the workplace, the best we can do is manage incidents of CWB, rather than expect to completely eliminate it. Companies that are not vigilant about the presence of bad behavior can end up creating a culture where CWB flourishes, resulting in lower morale, poorer engagement and higher costs. Rather than having to go on the defensive after the damage has been done, take the proactive step and create that company culture where people want to be and do good.

Armando J. Aguado is taking his Doctor of Business Administration studies at De La Salle University Manila. He is an affiliate of the American Psychological Association, and is an HR career professional. He is also a lecturer with the Department of Psychology of Mapúa University. He may be reached at [email protected] The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty, and its administrators.

Topics: Green Light , Lucifer Effect , bad employee , counterproductive work behavior
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