Employees who are disrespected by their co-workers feel more comfortable treating others the same way, and end up creating a very toxic workplace, new research finds.
The problem stems from one employee undermining another, found a study set to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. KiYoung Lee, one of the study's authors and an assistant professor in the University at Buffalo School of Management in New York, said undermining is intentional behavior that hinders other employees from achieving workplace success or establishing and maintaining positive relationships at work. Examples include giving a co-worker the silent treatment, belittling a co-worker's ideas in front of others or purposely withholding information just to delay the progress of a colleague.
"This kind of interpersonal aggression costs organizations about $6 billion each year in health problems, employee turnover and productivity loss," Lee said in a statement.
As part of the study, researchers conducted two rounds of surveys of 182 employees at 25 branches of two Korean banks to measure whether those who had been the victim of undermining would later become perpetrators. [See Related Story: Can Bad Behavior Benefit Your Team?]
The first survey examined employees' levels of undermining victimization, moral identity and interpersonal justice. The second survey, conducted one month later, measured employees' levels of moral disengagement, resource depletion and engagement in social undermining.
The researchers found that when employees feel they've been treated disrespectfully, they become more selfish because of an unfairness perception. Lee said these workers feel as if they have suffered enough and so now they are entitled to be selfish toward others.
"When we become selfish, it is much easier to justify our own [undermining] toward others," Lee said. "We use this to justify our actions, for instance, by calling undermining 'part of the game.'"
The key to stopping this spread of poor behavior is to hire employees with high moral character, Lee said.
"When employees have high moral identity, they are not susceptible to this process," he said.
In addition, employers can limit undermining in the workplace by emphasizing moral values within the organization, he said.
"They can provide more ethics training, or they can try to create an office environment where moral values are more salient," Lee said. "Simply displaying posters and slogans with moral values will also be very helpful, because it activates more [moral] identity in employees' minds."
The study was co-authored by Eugene Kim, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology; Devasheesh Bhave, an assistant professor at Singapore Management University; and Michelle Duffy, a professor at the University of Minnesota.