Antisocial Work Behaviors

Antisocial Work BehaviorsAntisocial work behaviors are typically broadly defined as physical and verbal assaults, threats, coercion, intimidation, and various forms of harassment that occur in the workplace. Although the media and popular press often highlight lethal forms of antisocial work behaviors, research evidence clearly demonstrates that non-lethal forms such as those listed above are the most prevalent, problematic, and costly to individuals, organizations, and society. This entry outlines the theory, research, and evidence concerning the causes and consequences of antisocial work behaviors. Because nearly all of these behaviors are nonlethal and the evidence concerning causes and consequences is more firmly grounded in this domain, this review is limited to non-lethal forms of antisocial behavior.

Four perspectives can be used to explain why individuals engage in antisocial work behaviors and to describe the causes of antisocial work behaviors. First, the organizational frustration approach, based on the frustration-aggression model from psychology, suggests that certain environmental frustrators prevent or intrude on an individual’s ability to achieve personal goals. Research demonstrates that any number of factors, such as job-related information, tools and equipment, materials and supplies, budgetary support, required services and help from others, time availability, role conflict, and work overload, can act as frustrators and trigger antisocial work behavior. A second perspective that can help explain antisocial work behavior is the social learning model. In this view, individuals can learn aggressive work behavior through direct experience or through observational learning. A supervisor, for example, may learn that work is completed quickly by subordinates if he or she threatens them. This direct experience may encourage the supervisor to engage in this behavior more frequently. Individuals also may learn from observing others. Using the preceding example, another supervisor may observe the threat or be told by the perpetrator that it is effective. If models of the behavior are rewarded, the observers may add that behavior to their repertoires. A third view is the cognitive appraisal model, which suggests that environmental factors (e.g., certain demands on the job) heighten emotions and lead to a search for the causes of the emotions. Because individuals tend not to believe that negative outcomes are self-caused, they are likely to ascribe blame to other individuals and may lash out in return. A fourth perspective is the justice view, which suggests that distributive injustice (unfairness of outcomes), procedural injustice (unfairness of procedures), interactional injustice (unfairness in interpersonal treatment), and supportive cognitions prompt negative emotional reactions (e.g., anger, frustration) and may trigger a desire to “even the score” by engaging in antisocial work behaviors.

Research also suggests that several characteristics of individuals are related to antisocial work behaviors. People who are higher in terms of negative emotionality (a tendency to experience negative emotional states) or emotional susceptibility (a tendency to experience vulnerability, helplessness, and discomfort in response to even mild frustration) tend to engage in antisocial work behaviors more frequently. Higher levels of competitiveness, time urgency, and irritability, a constellation often referred to as the Type A behavior pattern, also relate positively to antisocial work behaviors. The personality dimension referred to as locus of control may also play a role depending on the situation. Internals (individuals who believe they are in control of their own destinies) are hypothesized to be more likely to engage in aggressive behavior in situations in which such behavior is seen as instrumental to obtaining a desired outcome, whereas externals (individuals who believe that fate, chance, or luck determines what happens to them) are proposed to engage in aggression in response to instructions from others or because they are provoked to anger and do not think of the effects of their actions.

In terms of the consequences of antisocial work behaviors, research shows that targets, witnesses, and survivors of workplace violence often report feelings of guilt, depression, vulnerability, suicidal thoughts, and increased levels of substance use. The impact of nonviolent or milder forms of antisocial work behaviors is also strong. Research clearly demonstrates that reactions to sexual and other forms of harassment, undermining, abuse, bullying, incivility, and petty tyranny include psychological distress, such as depression, high levels of somatic or minor health complaints, poor or negative job attitudes, low levels of commitment to jobs and organizations, low levels of job performance, and high levels of withdrawal behaviors. In addition, the negative effects of antisocial work behaviors on the attitudes, behaviors, and health of employees are much stronger or more potent than the positive effects on the outcomes of behaviors such as social support. Perhaps because they are much rarer than positive interactions and events, the effects of antisocial work behaviors are much stronger than the effects of positive behaviors.

In addition to costs associated with being the target of antisocial work behaviors, the costs to organizations and society are also very high. One estimate places the cost of a single act of workplace violence at about $250,000 per violent incident, in terms of lost work time and legal fees. Estimates regarding the costs of serious but nonphysical forms of antisocial behavior range from $17,000 to $24,000. Another estimate places the cost of antisocial work behavior on a broader scale (i.e., to the United States as a whole). This study suggests that the total cost of antisocial work behaviors to the United States is at least 1.75 million lost days of work and $55 million in lost wages (in 1994 dollars).

Due to the implications of antisocial work behaviors for individuals and organizations, researchers are placing increasing attention on identifying the causes of such behaviors, as well as finding ways for individuals to effectively cope with being the targets, witnesses, or survivors of such behaviors in workplace contexts. This research not only continues to refine the definitions of the types of antisocial work behaviors but also continues to explore the magnitude and intensity of the outcomes of these behaviors.

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  1. Duffy, M. K., Ganster, D. and Pagon, M. 2002. “Social Undermining and Social Support in the Workplace.” Academy of Management Journal 45:331-351.
  2. O’Leary-Kelly, A. M., Duffy, M. K. and Griffin, R. W. 2000. “Construct Confusion in the Study of Antisocial Behavior at Work.” Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management 18:275-303.
  3. Tepper, B. J. 2000. “Consequences of Abusive Supervision.” Academy of Management Journal 43:178-190.