We’ve all seen it either as an employee or as an industrial-organizational psychologist – counterproductive work behavior that reduces productivity.
Perhaps an employee is habitually late to work. Maybe a coworker takes way too many breaks over the course of the day. You might have even been witness to active workplace bullying or sexual harassment of one employee by another. Obviously, none of these deviant workplace behaviors are acceptable.
While counterproductive behavior is common, it doesn’t have to be such a drain on resources and employee morale. In fact, as an industrial-organizational psychologist, you can help businesses and organizations:
- recognize counterproductive work behavior
- learn how to minimize counterproductive work behaviors
- implement strategies for curbing counterproductive work behavior in the future.
When counterproductive workplace behavior is in kept in check, employees engage in more positive, organizational citizenship behavior. These are actions and behaviors not required by a job role but are beneficial to a team. A workforce that exhibits organizational citizenship behaviors is seen as going above and beyond and giving their all.
What is Counterproductive Work Behavior?
A widely held definition of counterproductive work behavior (CWB) is that it is a destructive or deviant behavior that harms either employees or the organization as a whole. Many industrial-organizational psychologists agree that there are five general categories of counterproductive working behavior:
- Production deviance
Withdrawal refers to a situation in which an employee isn’t working the hours they are expected to work. Tardiness and absenteeism, which are discussed below, are two prime examples of withdrawal.
Abuse in the workplace can take many forms. Examples include:
- gossiping about a coworker
- verbally abusing a coworker
- sexual harassment
- workplace aggression
Theft is another culprit of counterproductive work behavior. Sometimes, employees might take critical items that prevent other employees from doing their jobs.
In extreme cases, other employees might actually engage in sabotage. Examples include:
- ruining company tools
- working to undermine the company’s reputation
- selling secrets to competitors
These kinds of counterproductive work behaviour are rare, but when they occur, the damage to a company’s productivity can be extreme.
Lastly, counterproductivity can take the form of production deviance, which occurs when an employee purposefully does their job incorrectly. An example of this might be when an employee on an assembly line purposefully attaches a component incorrectly.
Are all counterproductive behaviors created equal? No. There are certainly some that are more difficult to deal with. Let’s explore examples of counterproductive work behavior.
Tardiness and Absenteeism
Every workplace suffers from late or absent employees to some degree, which is why many implement absence-control policies to address the issue.
Rather than forcing management or team leaders to assess each case on an individual basis, businesses should consider creating a formal set of rules to guide decisions on this subject. For example, an organization might include the following in their employee training manual:
- Clear definitions of tardiness and absenteeism
- Examples of acceptable and unacceptable reasons for being late or missing work, such as getting a flat tire on the way to work that results in being late or the sudden death of a family member that results in a need to miss work at the last minute.
- Procedures for notifying superiors of being late or needing to miss work, including acceptable reasons for being late or absent, the time frame during which notification is acceptable (e.g., giving as much notice as possible), and the procedure for catching up on work that was missed.
- Well-defined rules regarding disciplinary action for continued tardiness and/or absenteeism.
The information outlined above is critical to disseminate to employees such that everyone is abundantly clear regarding the expectations for being on time and at work. This is the first step in curbing this issue of counterproductive work behavior. Each employee has likely come from a different work background, some of which might have taken a laissez-faire approach to this issue. Outlining these guidelines at the very start will nip that problem in the bud.
Aside from helping improve timeliness and attendance, having clear policies on this matter will help:
- improve workplace satisfaction
- make scheduling easier
- reduce conflicts between employees that are on time and those that are habitually late.
Bullying and Harassment
Public awareness of the profound effects of workplace bullying and harassment has increased in recent years, but these issues are still far from resolved. It’s an unfortunate consequence of workplaces being a melting pot of:
- different people
- employee personality traits
- personal histories
Not only can malicious or unwanted interactions between employees make workers uncomfortable and isolated, but these interactions can also make employee behavior far less productive. After all, it’s difficult to focus on a work-related task when all you can think about is whether or not a bully in the office is on their way to make you miserable.
But bullying and harassment don’t have to be overt to have a negative effect on productivity. Simple office gossiping is one of the most prevalent forms of counterproductive work behaviors. Employees are obviously being counterproductive when they spend time over the course of the workday talking about their coworkers.
But the counterproductivity continues when the gossip inevitably gets around the focus of the inappropriate conversations. Rather than completing their work, the employee might spend their day wondering what they did or said to become the focus of office gossip.
Awareness of these issues allows employers to set up rules and systems to protect their personnel from negative social interaction in the workplace. Again, like the tardiness and absenteeism issue, it’s important for businesses and organizations to clearly define what constitutes bullying and harassment. Likewise, it’s necessary to have clear procedures for reporting bullying and harassment and for addressing these issues in the workplace.
To make this happen, though, managers and executives need to foster a workplace in which employees feel comfortable talking about issues like this. It can be embarrassing, saddening, and even intimidating to report that you’ve been bullied or harassed to a superior. But by working with industrial-organizational psychologists, managers and executives can develop systems in the workplace that encourage open, honest communication about incidents of this nature.
Overworking and Late Nights
Whether it’s routinely keeping employees late or encouraging them to take their work home each evening, overclocking employees can have a devastating effect on their productivity.
In fact, the lack of sufficient sleep and rest from professional responsibilities is directly linked to an increase in workplace accidents and lower quality results, according to the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.
Likewise, not having the appropriate work-life balance can quickly lead to burnout. Employees that are burned out certainly aren’t able to be as productive.
Changing this situation begins at the top. It should be noted by superiors to their employees that the workday ends when the workday ends. It should be encouraged that employees:
- take appropriate time off
- engage in stress-reducing behaviors like exercise and getting enough sleep
- reach out to their superiors if they feel overworked
More specific actions can be taken as well. For example, employees shouldn’t feel pressured to immediately respond to emails during off-hours. To alleviate this worry, businesses and organizations can implement a policy that answering emails after work hours is not expected.
Businesses and organizations might make a commitment to their employees that working late nights or on the weekends on a regular basis is forbidden. This leaves the door open for employees to take overtime when they need or want to, but protects them from doing so with a frequency that leads to burnout.
Loafing on the job has been an issue for employers for about as long as there have been jobs, but modern digital technology has opened a whole new realm of time-wasting opportunities. Social media is a common culprit, especially in office environments where workers spend a lot of time on computers.
Businesses struggle to find a balance between policing how employees spend time and giving them free rein to fritter away the day on idle activity. Clear policies and the ability to enforce them require some level of supervision, but excessive oversight can also damage:
This means that addressing this counterproductive work behavior requires finesse. As an organizational psychologist, it might fall to you to figure out exactly what that balance is.
For example, banning the use of electronic devices during the workday is a little draconian and could be counterproductive. Yet, if employees are observed spending time on their phones or computers checking their Twitter feed, some measure of intervention is needed.
Which of the following might help solve, or at least alleviate, the problem of social loafing? All of these! A good solution might be to develop a social media policy (with input from employees) that establishes acceptable norms. Perhaps employees are asked not to be on social media except during breaks or in designated locations, like the breakroom. Whatever the policy, asking employees for their input will give them ownership over the expectations of them rather than feeling as though they’re being punished by their supervisors.
Breakdowns in Communication
There are several common sources of communication breakdowns within an organization that can contribute to counterproductive work behaviors.
For example, employees may hesitate to ask questions or confirm responsibilities for fear of looking silly or being reprimanded for lack of attentiveness. Poor communication between teams and departments can put projects behind schedule and result in duplicated work, which is nothing but a waste of time and resources.
To help prevent these and other breakdowns in communication from occurring, businesses and organizations need to foster a culture of communication. Establish a communication plan that outlines lines of communication between:
Likewise, discuss the types of communication that are appropriate, be that email, phone calls, texts, or chat programs.
As our workplaces become more diverse and more workers are remote, improving workplace communication is more important than ever. Team management software like Asana or Monday can be enormously helpful in giving team members a central place to communicate and update progress on work-related tasks.
Of course, mitigating breakdowns in communication needs to start from the get-go. Business leaders need to create a set of actions to offset counterproductive behaviors. Employee training manuals should be outfitted with a healthy section on how to communicate in the workplace and emphasize the importance of timely communication. By establishing the expectations for communication upfront, a business or organization is more likely to develop a culture of communication amongst its employees.
Lack of Independence
There are a couple of different layers to this common type of counterproductive work behavior.
First, some employees exhibit the need or desire to run their decisions by their supervisors with great frequency. While double-checking with a supervisor isn’t at all wrong, there does come a point at which an employee spends more time running things by their supervisor than actually implementing their decisions over the course of the workday.
Second, some managers like to micromanage their employees. While different from the example we just discussed, ends up with the same result – a lack of productivity.
After all, if employees are required to constantly check in and get approval from their boss, far less work will get done.
To overcome this issue, businesses and organizations need to promote a workplace that supports employee independence. Help employees gain the confidence they need to do their work without constantly seeking approval. Help supervisors develop a management style in which they are engaged with their employees while trusting them to make the right decisions.
Why Addressing Counterproductive Work Behaviors is So Important
Addressing counterproductive work behavior is more than a matter of saving a bit of money. Instead, for some employers, improving overall worker productivity plays a decisive role in establishing a competitive advantage in the market and ensuring long-term success.
It’s easy to blame the internet, smartphones, and other marvels of modern technology for a distracted workforce. Ultimately, it’s our job to create a work environment that is conducive to on-task productivity and which minimizes opportunities for off-task activities to occur.
This isn’t to say that managers and executives need to rule their employees with an iron fist – far from it! The key in maximizing performance and improving a business’s bottom line is:
- doing the work of establishing norms of workplace behavior
- the means of evaluating work performance
- offering employees a safe space to discuss unproductive activities
Achieving a completely efficient workplace is an idealistic dream for any company leader, but it’s also nothing more than an ideal. There will always be room for improvement in any organization. Leaders should strive to prioritize the issues that most impact their specific organization.
Identifying and addressing common sources of counterproductive work behavior won’t solve everything, but it can make a massive difference in the overall quality and quantity of worker output.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
Updated July 2022