Organizational deviance is defined as voluntary actions that violate significant organizational norms as prescribed by formal and informal policies, rules, and procedures and that, in doing so, threaten the well-being or reputation of the organization and/or its members. Examples of organizational deviance include lying, stealing, voluntary absenteeism, sabotage, fraud, corruption, and even violence in the workplace. Research indicates that a significant percentage of employees have engaged in or been a victim of organizational deviance. Deviant behavior within an organization can have financial implications as well as affect the reputations of the individual leaders of the corporation and the corporation itself. Three determinants of employee deviance—personality, justice, and leadership—are also discussed.
Workplace deviance prevails in society and has garnered significant media attention. It can be seen from the number of recent corporate scandals, like Enron and WorldCom’s accounting practices or Hewlett-Packard and Deutsch Bank’s spying accusations. The upper echelons of the organization are often seen as representatives of the organization, such that their actions are closely tied to inferences concerning the organization’s intentions. People exhibit a negativity bias in the moral judgment of firms and therefore tend to place more weight on negative rather than on positive events. Organizational deviance discredits not only the individuals who perpetrated it but also the organizations for which they work, with devastating consequences for those companies’ reputations and, in turn, their profitability across time.
Moreover, there are data suggesting that a significant number of employees have either engaged in or been a victim of some type of deviant behavior within their organization (e.g., 75 percent of U.S. employees have reportedly stolen from their employer at least once). A study conducted with more than 600 workers in the restaurant industry and reported by Roland Kidwell and Christopher Martin in their book Managing Organizational Deviance illustrates the pervasiveness of this problem. The study showed that 21 percent of participants observed colleagues stealing cash, 22 percent called coworkers insulting names, 37 percent made fun of others’ accents, and 12 percent prepared or served intentionally contaminated food.
A 2014 study conducted by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners shows that organizations might lose approximately 5 percent of their annual revenue to occupational fraud, which includes behaviors such as conflicts of interest, bribery, over- and understatements of assets or revenues, and theft, among others. Applied to the 2013 estimated gross world product, these fraudulent behaviors accounted for an estimated loss of approximately $3.7 trillion worldwide in that year alone. These factors have pressed organizations to control deviant behaviors and assess/promote the ethical conduct of their members, particularly those in influential positions.
This entry examines the different types of workplace deviance and the antecedents of workplace deviance.
Typology of Workplace Deviance
Sandra Robinson and Rebecca Bennett developed a typology of deviant behaviors that revolves around two axes: (1) the seriousness or harmfulness of the actions (minor vs. serious deviance) and (2) whether the actions are harmful to individuals or to organizations more broadly (interpersonal vs. organizational deviance). This leads to the classification of deviant behaviors into four quadrants:
Production deviance (minor and harmful to the organization) consists of behaviors that violate norms concerning the minimal quality and quantity of work to be completed. It includes behaviors like leaving early, taking excessive breaks, or wasting resources.
Property deviance (serious and harmful to the organization) encompasses actions where employees acquire or damage the assets of the organization. It comprises behaviors such as lying about the number of hours worked, stealing, and sabotaging equipment.
Political deviance (minor and harmful to other individuals) is defined as behaviors that put others in a position of personal or political disadvantage. It involves behaviors such as showing favoritism, gossiping, and blaming others.
Personal aggression (serious and harmful to other individuals) involves all forms of aggressive or hostile actions toward others. It consists of actions like sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and endangering coworkers.
Based on this typology, the same authors later developed what eventually became the most commonly used measure of workplace deviance, which focuses on the target of the action and thus separates interpersonal and organizational forms of deviance. The scale captures two qualitatively different forms of deviance, regardless of its quantity (i.e., severity). It is also important to note that although deviance is the most commonly used conceptualization of the “dark side” of employee behavior, other overlapping concepts have also been advanced in the literature (e.g., antisocial behavior, counterproductive behavior, dysfunctional behavior, organizational misbehavior) and are often used interchangeably.
Antecedents of Workplace Deviance
Given the effect of deviant behaviors on organizational functioning, researchers have dedicated a significant amount of time to trying to disentangle the process that leads to heightened deviance. Three determinants of employee deviance are personality, justice, and leadership.
Individuals with certain personality characteristics such as high emotional stability (secure and with low anxiety and emotionality), conscientiousness (hardworking, dependable, and detail oriented), and agreeableness (likable and friendly) tend to exhibit less deviant behaviors. Interestingly, agreeableness is more strongly related to interpersonal deviance, while conscientiousness presents a stronger relationship with organizational deviance.
When individuals perceive that the allocation of resources (distributive), the decision-making process leading to the distribution of rewards (procedural), and the personal treatment received (interpersonal) are fair, they are less likely to engage in acts of deviance. When perceptions of fairness are low, individuals attempt to restore equity by making the input-outcome ratio less negative from their perspective (i.e., increase deviance).
Leaders play a key role in the development or discouragement of deviant behaviors, not only due to the norm of reciprocity (i.e., individuals feel indebted to repay the positive treatment and benefits received and retaliate when they think they were targets of unfavorable actions) but also because of role-modeling effects (i.e., individuals emulate the actions of leaders because they are viewed as role models). Subordinates who perceive their leaders to engage in destructive behaviors (e.g., abuse) tend to display more acts of deviance. However, positive perceptions of leaders’ actions (e.g., ethical leadership, high-quality leader-member exchange) tend to reduce employee deviance.
Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. (2014). Report to the nations on occupational fraud and abuse. Austin, TX: Author.
Bennett, R. J., & Robinson, S. L. (2000). Development of a measure of workplace deviance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 349–360.
Berry, C. M., Ones, D. S., & Sackett, P. R. (2007). Interpersonal deviance, organizational deviance, and their common correlates: A review and meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 410–424.
Kidwell, R. E., & Martin, C. L. (2005). Managing organizational deviance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Robinson, S. L., & Bennett, R. J. (1995). A typology of deviant workplace behaviors: A multidimensional scaling study. Academy of Management Journal, 38, 555–572.