When Envy Prompts Exit

A study explains why singling out an Employee of the Month may generate more bad feelings among staffers than a boss intended

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Selecting an Employee of the Month? Turns out naming a Team of the Month may be a better alternative for retaining valued employees. The key is understanding what matters most to your workers.

That’s the conclusion of a University at Buffalo-led study in a fascinating field: envy in the workplace.

A Trigger for Turnover

According to the study, published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, when employees who strive to be team players feel envious of their co-workers, they may withdraw, missing work or even leaving the organization altogether. Such feelings can be elicited when one employee is singled out for praise or reward­.

“Envy is inevitable in many social situations, including the workplace, but research typically focuses on how it triggers some people to take action, for example, by sabotaging another employee,” said lead author Danielle Tussing, assistant professor of organization and human resources in the UB School of Management. “Our study looks at a different effect—instances when envy causes people to disengage and avoid the situation that’s causing them pain.”

A Better Approach

Tussing and her co-authors surveyed more than 670 employees from 23 supermarkets in Indonesia. Using confidential responses, the researchers measured their feelings of envy at work, as well as their motivations across three dimensions: harmony with co-workers, personal achievement and status.

Then, three months later, the researchers analyzed data supplied by the store’s HR department to count each employee’s voluntary absences and assess overall turnover.

When employees who are more achievement-oriented felt envious of their colleagues, they were less likely to miss work or leave the company, perhaps because their envy pushed them to work harder on self-improvement.

However, for workers who are highly motivated by teamwork and camaraderie, the study found they were absent more often—and more likely to eventually quit—when they reported feelings of envy.

Tussing said her research presents an important lesson for organizations with team-based cultures.

“Managers should avoid situations that easily trigger social comparisons, like designating an Employee of the Month, giving certain employees better assignments or showing favoritism,” Tussing said. “Instead, look for opportunities to reward the entire team and emphasize collective goals, so that employees see their co-workers’ success as their own.”