Deviant and Criminal Behavior in the Workplace

Deviant and Criminal Behavior in the Workplace

Edited by: Steven M. Elias
Publisher: New York: New York University Press, 2013. 270p.
Reviewer: Stéphane Lefebvre | May 2014

Published in the Psychology and Crime series of New York University Press, Deviant and Criminal Behavior in the Workplace offers an up-to-date review of the relevant literature, and points to practices that would help mitigate and manage such a common—albeit understudied—form of behavior. Following an introduction (Part I) highlighting the insights that can be drawn from criminology and the sociology of work, the book breaks down into four parts: Part II unveils employee characteristics associated with deviant workplace behavior; Part III discusses the organizational influences on deviant workplace behavior; Part IV explains the role of injustice and social power in deviant workplace behavior; and Part V provides insights on violence in the workplace.

Part I: Introduction

In their discussion of insights from criminology and the sociology of work, Randy Hodson and Gary Jensen express their disappointment at criminology’s apparent lack of interest in the study of crime and the workplace. They are upbeat, however, by the fact that this issue is growing in prominence in new journals and in fields of study such as occupational health, personnel psychology, leadership, and management. To move the research agenda forward, they believe that widely shared concepts (such as injustice and abuse of power, applied at both the organizational and individual levels), and the use of general theories of crime by deviant workplace behavior researchers would definitely help. Taking a sociology of work approach, they describe how the concept of social power (“the ability to bend resources and people to one’s objectives,” p. 6) can be applied at the macro-level of government policy, the meso-level of organizational behavior, and the micro-level of individual and small group actions. Quite rightfully, they note the fact that individual-level actions can be influenced by macro and meso-level behaviors, especially if issues of equity and justice are in play.

Of the general theories of crime, they observe that strain theories, cultural deviance/differential association/social learning theories, and social control theories all have insights to offer to our understanding of deviant and criminal behavior in the workplace. They further suggest that the generalized strain theory, whereby crime or deviance can be motivated by disparities between expectations and perceived reality, has much to offer to enhance our understanding of the linkages between criminology and the sociology of work, because of their joint focus on injustice and emotion. As a solution to deviant and criminal behavior in the workplace, they suggest that all stakeholders involved be empowered in the negotiation and bargaining of ongoing practices and that they make the latter transparent instead of relying on whistle-blowers to come forward.

Part II: Employee Characteristics Associated with Deviant Workplace Behavior

In their chapter on emotions and deviance, Rebecca Michalak and Neal Ashkanasy set out to determine, through a literature review, the role emotions “play as antecedents or consequences of deviant behavior at work” (p. 20). In doing so, they use the Five-Level Model of analysis of emotions (level 1 is within-person; 2 is individual differences; 3 is interpersonal; 4 is groups and teams; and 5 is the organization) to determine that:

  1. Emotions can cause deviance and deviance can cause emotions (level 1);
  2. Perpetrators and victims both exhibit emotionally relevant characteristics as potential causes of deviance (level 2);
  3. Abusive interactions and the witnessing of these interactions may lead to emotions, deviance or both (level 3);
  4. Organizational culture and climate can be deviant (e.g., a climate of fear or injustice) to the extent that deviant behaviors become the norm (level 5).

They acknowledge as well that the perpetrator of a deviant behavior may have no reason at all for it.

In their chapter on the relationship between workplace deviance and employee personality, Christine Henle and Michael Gross propose a model of workplace deviance whereby personality traits (“enduring predispositions to think, believe, and behave in certain ways” p. 53) are used to determine if an employee is likely to engage in deviant behavior against the organization or other employees. In the interactional approach they espouse, they recognize that the organizational context (e.g., workplace injustice) can be an influencing or enabling factor in the commission of a deviant act by employees predisposed toward deviance. At the interpersonal level, they recognize as well that someone’s personality traits (being seen as weak, annoying, hostile, etc.) may attract intentional acts of deviance toward them. The model is based on what they call the Big Five taxonomy, which hierarchically organizes personality along five universal factors: extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness (or conformity, dependability), and openness to experience. Research indicate that conscientiousness, emotional stability, and agreeableness can best predict workplace deviance, with variations depending on the type of deviance and the organizational context. For example, when an organization has explicit directives and norms in place and enforces them, personality will be constrained and employees will behave similarly. Conversely,

employees with a propensity for workplace deviance will be more likely to act in a deviant manner when their employer treats them unfairly, takes few security precautions or sanctions against deviance, does not instill norms discouraging deviance, is unsupportive, offers mundane work, or has pervasive interpersonal conflict.

In light of these research results, the authors review measures that organizations can take to screen out individuals most likely to commit a deviant act. These include integrity tests, employment interviews, mentoring, and the acquisition of conflict management skills.

The last chapter in part II, written by Sharon Grant, deals with occupational stress in workplace deviance. How people react to stress, Grant observes, can take different forms, including engaging in deviant or criminal behavior to compensate for feelings occasioned by stress. In this chapter, focus is placed on understanding the antecedents of workplace deviance, which is necessary in order to prevent and manage acts of deviance, through stressor-emotion models. These models show, for example, that individuals affected by neuroticism are predisposed to express negative emotions which may make them more likely to commit a deviant act. To mitigate and manage stress-related workplace deviance and criminal behavior, Grant recommends the adoption of preventative strategies (including personality testing at the hiring stage), organizational interventions (such as job redesign), and stress interventions with affected employees (i.e., stress education).

Part III: Organizational Influences on Deviant Workplace Behavior

In chapter 5, William Smith, Brandon Hill Haynes and Cindy Seipel discuss the effects of fraudulent workplace behaviors directed at the organization and how best to mitigate, reduce and eliminate them. They first look at the different types of fraud encountered in an organization (misappropriation of assets and fraudulent financial reporting) and then address how internal controls and management responsibility influence deviant workplace behavior. To illustrate their answer, they use a series of short but illuminating case studies. From my perspective and experience, the ability of management to influence workplace behavior is a major factor. The “tone at the top of the organization” (p. 110), the authors also recognize, must be the right one for an internal control structure to be effective.

In chapter 6, human resource management and how it can impact deviant/criminal behavior in organizations is the subject pursued by Philip Benson, Glennis Hanley and Wesley Scroggins. They see an important role for human resources departments starting with the hiring process to encompass activities such as training/development, performance management, and organizational exit. On the hiring front, they note that there are many background measures that could be used to screen prospective employees (e.g., credit reports, drug tests, reference checks, polygraph tests, etc.) but that caution is in order to ensure that each captures something meaningful with respect to expected employment behavior. What predictive ability, for instance, would any have in a specific setting is a question that needs to be asked.

Part IV: The Role of (In)Justice and Social Power in Deviant Workplace Behavior

In chapter 7, Russell Cropanzano and Carolina Moliner tackle the difficult issues of fairness. While it is possible for a situation to be objectively assessed as unfair by both the employer and the employee, this usually is rarely the case. Often an employee’s perception of injustice is the reflection of a self-serving judgment (or egocentric bias) and of a negative reaction to bad behavior (a moral judgment). When facing a situation believed to be unjust, employees often seek revenge, which leads them to engage in deviant or criminal behavior in the workplace and beyond. To reduce this possibility, the authors suggest in a nutshell, to “seek justice with principled intentions and open eyes” (p. 173).

In chapter 8 on sexual harassment and job discrimination, Steven Elias, Lindsey Gibson and Chet Barney explore the causes and consequences of these two deviant behaviors as well as their relationship to social power — a notion which they define as “the ability of one person to impact or change the behavior of another” (p. 178). They also subscribe to the influential typology “that describes social power through five bases of power: reward, coercive, legitimate, referent, and expert power” (p. 178), each of which can be leveraged to harass and discriminate. To reduce sexual harassment and discrimination, formal and effective policies and procedures are suggested.

Part V: Violence in the Workplace

In chapter 9, Ricky Griffin and Yvette Lopez analyze the potential role of workplace culture in triggering deviant behavior, and argue that there are occasions when the organizational culture can be a serious factor in the onset of violence. They recognize too that employees may have predispositions—because of their personality, experiences (for example of perceived injustice), or motives (perhaps the result of being provoked)—for violent behavior, but note that the manner in which they interact with organizational factors (such as culture, norms, procedures, reward system, and attitude toward employees) may either “increase or decrease the probability of deviant behaviors” (p. 200). These authors review such organizational factors and note the characteristics that would diminish the propensity to elicit deviant behavior. In their conclusion, they add that other factors may be relevant from both an individual (e.g., values, genetics…) or contextual (national culture, the role of coworkers…) standpoint, but their study is beyond the scope of this chapter.

The book’s final chapter, written by Allen Hess and Clara Hess is preoccupied with the prevention of violence and dealing with its aftermath. First off, they set the record straight: only four percent of employees who are killed are killed by a fellow employee. Then they proceed by categorizing workplace violence by types (Type I-Criminal intent; Type II-Customer and client violence; Type III-Employee-on-employee violence; and Type V-Intimate partner violence), and, to prevent workplace violence present a series of environmental, organizational, administrative, behavioral and interpersonal strategies for each type. Having in place such strategies can make a difference. According to the authors, “[r]esearch indicates that when employees believe the organization will take some form of action against workplace aggression, there is a reduction in the occurrence of workplace aggression” (p. 230). The authors conclude their chapter with a short discussion of post-incident management and rightly contend that preparing a response is as essential as responding adequately (to media coverage and to the needs of employees) after an incident has occurred.

Taken together, the chapters in this book cover a lot of ground, and do so from multiple disciplinary perspectives. Most useful and certainly well done are the clearly articulated summaries of the state of research in each of the chapters. As someone who has accumulated about 20 years of experience in managing employees (as an army officer and federal civil servant), I quickly realized that I still had a lot to learn about preventing, detecting, understanding and influencing deviant behaviors. Hence, I believe that this is a book that should find an attentive readership among scholars, students and practitioners alike, whether they are interested in the psychological, criminal or organizational aspects of deviance. If some of the suggestions and recommendations to prevent and mitigate deviant behavior are vague and underspecified, they are still sufficiently detailed to indicate avenues of further personal research on the part of the reader. While the book does not offer novel research results per se, it takes stock of recent advances and serves in my view a very useful educational purpose. It is recommended. 

Stéphane Lefebvre is a PhD candidate at the Department of Law & Legal Studies of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. He has published over 20 book chapters and journal articles and over 75 book reviews.

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