CLEMSON — Unfulfilled promises — as perceived by employees — can exact a heavy toll on an organization and its employees, especially when a select group of workers feel they have been wronged by their employer, according to a Clemson University business school researcher.

Tom Zagenczyk

Tom Zagenczyk

In a study of more than 350 hospitality industry employees, Tom Zagenczyk, associate professor of management, found that workers with low self-control are very likely to seek revenge when they perceive their employer has reneged on a promise. The likelihood of that deviant behavior is greater when an employee views the culture in which they work to be aggressive.

“People with low self-control tend to be self-centered, short-tempered and uncaring of others’ pain and suffering,” Zagenczyk said. “That type of employee can cause serious problems in a workplace if they feel their employer has not lived up to a promise, such as pay for performance, promotions or the like.”

Zagenczyk said counter-productive workplace behavior costs employers billions of dollars annually in lost productivity due in part to revenge-seeking behavior, such as mistreating fellow workers, sabotage, gossiping and stealing from the employer.

“Studies show that employees are responsible for nearly 50 percent of theft in organizations, while shoplifters are responsible for only about 33 percent,” Zagenczyk said.

The researchers said employees, even those with low self-control, may be less inclined to act out their frustrations in the workplace if they don’t deem it to be a culture where it would be tolerated.

“Aggressive workplaces are often a function of your supervisor or top-level management’s behavior. If there’s a perception that the industry you work in, your supervisor or senior leadership is abusive, employees will be more likely to engage in deviant behavior,” Zagenczyk said. “Employees are more likely to emulate that abusiveness if they witness it in positions more powerful than them. This creates the perception that abusive or counterproductive behavior is a norm.”

The researchers said there is not an upside to hiring people with low self-control, but some organizations may take the chance if they feel the person’s talents are so great that they are worth the risk.

So how does an employer avoid hiring low self-control employees? Zagenczyk said there’s no sure-fire way to eliminate them from the workplace, but identifying them in the hiring process is a start.

Though considered a controversial measurement by many because they include situations beyond the control of an employee (such as a down housing market or high medical bills), credit scores are often believed to be a proxy for self-control. But a better way to measure one’s tolerance is by asking them, Zagenczyk said.

“Just ask them how they behaved in the past, and you can do that in a couple of ways,” Zagenczyk said. “As part of the hiring process, survey questions can be asked about personality characteristics. And, of course, the behavior-based interview is a good way to determine, on the spot, how much self-control a person might have. Of course, the difficulty with these approaches is that employees may try to ‘fake’ higher levels of self-control.”

Zagenczyk was joined in the research by Australian National University researchers Simon Lloyd D. Restubog, Prashant Bordia and Sarbari Bordia, and University of New South Wales researcher Georgia Chapman.

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