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Toxic behavior recycled in the workplace, study finds

By KEVIN MANNE

Published June 13, 2016

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School of Management faculty member KiYoung Lee talks about a new study that found that undermining behavior is replicated in the workplace.

When employees are undermined at work, they begin to undermine their colleagues — causing a vicious cycle, according to new research from the School of Management.

Published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the study advises organizations to develop workplace ethics training programs and hire employees who value morality to limit the cycle of undermining. Managers also can emphasize moral values at work by displaying posters or slogans with such values.

“When an employee is undermined, it hinders their ability to achieve success, maintain positive relationships and build their reputation,” says the study’s lead author, KiYoung Lee, assistant professor of organization and human resources. “This kind of interpersonal aggression costs organizations about $6 billion each year in health problems, employee turnover and productivity loss.”

The researchers surveyed 182 employees at 25 branches of two Korean banks. They conducted two rounds of surveys to measure whether those who had been the victim of undermining would later become a perpetrator. The first survey measured employees’ levels of undermining victimization, moral identity and interpersonal justice, and also included control variables. The second survey, conducted one month later, measured employees’ levels of moral disengagement, resource depletion and engaging in social undermining.

The study found that as victims feel they’ve been treated disrespectfully and unfairly, they feel entitled to be selfish toward co-workers.

“The fact that victims become selfish is troublesome because it makes it easier to rationalize doing harm to others,” Lee says. “We use this to justify our actions, for instance, by calling undermining ‘part of the game.’”

Lee collaborated on the project with Eugene Kim, assistant professor of organizational behavior, Georgia Institute of Technology Scheller College of Business; Devasheesh Bhave, assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources, Singapore Management University; and Michelle Duffy, Board of Overseers Professor of Work and Organizations, University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management.

READER COMMENT

This is so true. Also, the conclusion of the study is pretty obvious and common sense. It's unbelievable that a study has to be done to show what will happen if you continually harass, bully and victim-blame someone. This study proves something that I have thought for quite some time: that people who bully and harass others are very arrogant, selfish human beings who see their targets as weaker or less than them. But funny that the victims can learn from their perpetrators how to be perpetrators themselves in order to prevent any more victimization coming their way.

 

Anne E. Taylor