Workplace deviance

Workplace deviance, in group psychology, may be described as the deliberate (or intentional) desire to cause harm to an organization – more specifically, a workplace. The concept has become an instrumental component in the field of organizational communication. More accurately, it can be seen as "voluntary behavior that violates institutionalized norms and in doing so threatens the well-being of the organization".[1]



Psychological contract

Employees often create a set of expectations about their workplace; people tend to make psychological contracts with their organizations. When his or her expectations are not met, the employee may "perceive a psychological contract breach by their employers".[2] This "breach" of the psychological contract then presents potential problems, particularly in the workplace.

Workplace deviance may arise from the worker's perception that their organization has mistreated him or her in some manner. Employees then resort to misbehaving (or acting out) as a means of avenging their organization for the perceived wrongdoing. Workplace deviance may be viewed as a form of negative reciprocity. "A negative reciprocity orientation is the tendency for an individual to return negative treatment for negative treatment".[3] In other words, the maxim "an eye for an eye" is a concept that some employees strongly feel is a suitable approach to their problem. However, what is critical in understanding employee deviance is that the employee perceives being wronged, whether or not mistreatment actually occurred.

Abusive supervision

Workplace deviance is also closely related to abusive supervision. Abusive supervision is defined as the "subordinates' perceptions of the extent to which their supervisors engage in the sustained display of hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors".[3] If abusive supervision is practiced, retaliation can occur. Mitchell also states that workplace deviance occurs as a result of the displacement of employees’ frustration with (or aggression toward) their supervisor; it becomes directed toward coworkers and the organization. There are several reasons for this displacement. The employee may not have the opportunity to engage in retaliatory behavior towards the specific supervisor, or may fear doing so.[3]

Workplace experiences may fuel the worker to act out. Research has been conducted demonstrating that the perception of not being respected is one of the main causes for workplace deviance; workplace dissatisfaction is also a factor. According to Bolin and Heatherly,[4] "dissatisfaction results in a higher incidence of minor offenses, but does not necessarily lead to severe offense". An employee who is less satisfied with his or her work may become less productive as their needs are not meet. In the workplace, "frustration, injustices and threats to self are primary antecedents to employee deviance".[5] Although workplace deviance does occur, the behavior is not universal.


Workplace deviance may be expressed in various ways. Employees can engage in minor, extreme, nonviolent or violent behavior, which ultimately leads to an organization's decline in productivity. Interpersonal and organizational deviance are two forms of workplace deviance which are directed differently; however, both cause harm to an organization.

Interpersonal deviance

Interpersonal deviance can occur when misconduct "target(s) specific stakeholders such as coworkers".[6] Behavior falling within this subgroup of employee deviance includes gossiping about coworkers and assigning blame to them. These minor (but unhealthy) behaviors, directed at others, are believed to occur as some employees perceive "a sense of entitlement often associated with exploitation".[6] In other words, they feel the need to misbehave in ways that will benefit them.

Organizational deviance

Deviant behavior typically aimed directly at the organization is often referred to as organizational deviance.[6] Organizational deviance encompasses production and property deviance. Workplace-deviant behavior may be expressed as tardiness or excessive absenteeism.[7] These behaviors have been cited by some researchers as "withdraw(al) behaviors…such behaviors allow employees to withdraw physically and emotionally from the organization".[7]


Employee silence is also considered a deviant behavior in the workplace, falling into the realms of both interpersonal and organizational deviance. Silence becomes employee deviance when “an employee intentionally or unintentionally withholds any kind of information that might be useful to the organization”.[8] The problem occurs if an employee fails to disclose important information, which detrimentally affects the effectiveness of the organization due to poor communication.

Coworker backstabbing

Coworker backstabbing occurs to some degree in many workplaces. It consists of an employee doing something to another employee to get a "leg up" on the other employee. Strategies used for backstabbing include dishonesty, blame (or false accusation), discrediting others and taking credit for another’s work. Motives for backstabbing include disregarding others' rights in favor of one's own gain, self-image management, revenge, jealousy and personal reasons.[9]


A novel form of workplace deviance has emerged in recent years, as technology becomes a bigger part of people’s work lives. Internet workplace deviance (or “cyberloafing”) has become another way for employees to avoid the tasks at hand.[10] This includes surfing the web and doing non-work-related tasks on the internet such as chatting on social-networking sites, online shopping, downloading warez, and other activities.

Production deviance

All behaviors in which deviant employees partake ultimately have a negative impact on the overall productivity of the organization. For this reason, all are considered production deviance. Production deviance is “behavior that violates formally prescribed organizational norms with respect to minimal quality and quantity of work to be accomplished as part of one’s job”.[6]

Property deviance

More serious cases of deviant behavior harmful to an organization concern property deviance. Property deviance is “where employees either damage or acquire tangible assets…without authorization”.[6] This type of deviance typically involves theft but may include “sabotage, intentional errors in work, misusing expense accounts”, among other examples.[7]

Other types

Deviant behavior can be much more extreme, involving sexual harassment and even violence. All these deviant behaviors create problems for the organization. It is costly for an organization to pay employees who are not working efficiently.

Reducing workplace deviance

The relationships employees have with their organization are crucial, as they can play an important role in the development of workplace deviance. Employees who perceive their organization or supervisor(s) as more caring (or supportive) have been shown to have a reduced incidence of workplace-deviant behaviors. Supervisors, managers and organizations are aware of this, and “assess their own behaviors and interactions with their employees and understand while they may not intend to abuse their employees they may be perceived as doing so…”.[3]

Organizational justice and the organizational climate are also critical, since the quality of the work experience can impact employee behavior in the workplace. Organizational justice may be organized into three subcategories: procedural, distributive and interactional justice.

  • Interactional justice involves the interpersonal relationship and sense of fairness which employees have with supervisors and other authority figures within the organization.[11]

Research indicates that procedural justice (combined with interactional justice) is beneficial in reducing workplace-deviant behavior. Employees who are consulted (and given an opportunity to be involved in the decision-making processes at their organization) are less likely to act out, since their voices are valued.

Workplace deviance is a phenomenon which occurs frequently within an organization. Ultimately, it is the managers' and the organization's responsibility to uphold the norms to which the organization wishes to adhere; it is the organization's job to create an ethical climate.[12] If organizations have authority figures who demonstrate their ethical values, a healthier workplace environment is created. “Research has suggested that managers’ behavior influences employee ethical decision-making”.[12] Employees who perceive themselves as being treated respectfully and valued are those less likely to engage in workplace deviance.

See also


  1. ^ Griffin and O’Leary-Kelly
  2. ^ Chiu and Peng
  3. ^ a b c d Mitchell and Ambrose
  4. ^ Bolin and Heatherly
  5. ^ Benner and Robinson
  6. ^ a b c d e Pulich and Tourigny
  7. ^ a b c Everton et al
  8. ^ Tangirala and Ramanujam
  9. ^ Malone
  10. ^ Zoghbi
  11. ^ Harris and Ogbonna
  12. ^ a b Litzky et al


  • Bennett and Robinson (2003)
  • Bolin, A. and Heatherly, L . ( 2001). Predictors of Employee Deviance: The Relationship between Bad Attitudes and Bad Behaviors.” Journal of Business and Psychology, 15(3), pg 405.
  • Chiu. S and Peng, J. (2008) “The relationship between psychological contract breach and employee deviance: The moderating role of hostile attributional style.” Journal of Vocational Behavior, 73 (4), 426-433.
  • Everton, W.J., et al. (2007). “Be nice or else: understanding reasons for employee’s deviant behaviors.” The Journal of Management Development. 26 (2), 117.
  • Griffin, R.W. and O’Leary-Kelly, A.M. (2004). The Dark Side of Organizational Behavior. Wiley, New York.
  • Harris, L.C. and Ogbonna, E. (2006). “Service Sabotage: A Study of Antecedents and Consequences.” Academy of Marketing Science Journal. 34(4), 543-599.
  • Hollinger , R. and Clark, J. (1982).“ Employee Deviance: A response to Perceived Quality of the Work Experience.” Work and Occupations, 9 (1), 97-114.
  • Litzky, B.E., et al. (2006). “The Good, the Bad, and the Misguided: How Managers Inadvertently Encouraged deviant Behaviors” Academy of Management Perspectives, 13 (5), 91-100.
  • Malone, Patty. "Coworker Backstabbing: Strategies, Motives, and Responses" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, TBA, San Francisco, CA, May 23, 2007
  • Mitchell, M. and Ambrose, M.L. (2007). “Abusive Supervision and Workplace Deviance and the Moderating Effects of Negative Reciprocity Beliefs.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 92 ( 4), 1159-1168.
  • Pulich, M. and Tourigny, L. (2004). “Workplace deviance: Strategies for Modifying Employee Behavior.” The Health Care Manager, 23 (4), 290-301.
  • Tangirala, Subrahmaniam, and Rangaraj Ramanujam. (2008): "Employee Silence on Critical Work Issue: The Cross Level Effects of Procedural Justice Climate." Personnel Psychology, 61 (2), 40-68.
  • Zoghbi-Manrique-de-Lara, P. (2006) “Fear in Organizations, Does intimidation by formal punishment mediate the relationship between interactional justice and workplace internet deviance?” Journal of Managerial Psychology, 21( 6), 580.

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