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Status Matters When It Comes to Workplace Favors

Status Matters When It Comes to Workplace Favors
Credit: A. and I. Kruk/Shutterstock

Where you fall in the office hierarchy could affect your chances of getting a co-worker's helping hand, new research finds.

Workers are most likely to want to help colleagues who aren't too close or too far away from themselves in status, according to a study recently published online in the journal Academy of Management Discoveries. This includes co-workers who are both above and below them on the corporate ladder.

Robert Lount, co-author of the study and an associate professor at The Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, said past research has been focused on whether the employee is higher or lower ranked and how that affects his or her work with others.

"But status distance may be more important in some circumstances than whether your colleague is above or below you," Lount said in a statement. "The sweet spot for helping seems to be those who are moderately distant from you in status."

The reason for this may be because employees aren't as threatened by employees who aren't close to them on the pecking order, said Sarah Doyle, the study's lead author and a doctoral student at the Fisher College of Business.

"Someone near you in status poses more of a threat," Doyle said. "The help you provide could help them pass you in status, or make it more difficult for you to pass them."

On the other hand, employees may think those who are far above or below them in status may require too much time and effort to assist, which could negatively impact their own performance. [See Related Story: 5 Simple, Proven Ways to Be a Better Co-Worker ]

Doyle said colleagues who are moderately distant don't pose much of a threat and allow employees to show their willingness to help out a colleague.

The research isn't saying, however, that co-workers aren't willing to help anyone out when they need it, Lount said.

"It is not a story of withholding assistance," he said. "It is more about who are you most likely to go out of your way to help."

As part of the study, researchers asked 267 undergraduate students to imagine they were part of a 15-person sales team. The students were asked if they would be willing to help another team member who was close to landing a big account, but was running short on time.

The students were told that the colleague asking for help was either similar to them in status (a small status distance); very dissimilar (a large status distance); or neither similar nor dissimilar (a moderate status distance).

The researchers discovered that the students were most likely to help a team member who was moderately different from them in status.

In another experiment, the study's authors asked 170 employees at a customer call center to try to make sales during their calls with customers. Each month the employees are sent a list of where each ranks in terms of sales, which gave the workers an idea of how their status compared to their colleagues.

During the experiment, the employees worked on their own, but were encouraged to help each other. Following the calls, the employees were asked to complete a survey that included a question asking each employee to list co-workers who regularly came to them for help and co-workers whom they regularly went to seeking help.

Similarly to what they saw in the first experiment, researchers found that workers were most helpful to teammates who weren't too close or far away from them in status.

Lount believes the research can be useful when employers are assigning workers to train new employees. He said employers might want to avoid assigning the most recently hired employee to train the newcomer.

"If that relative newcomer is worried about his or her status in the organization, they may be less than helpful with this new person who could surpass them," Lount said. "Someone who is moderately successful, but not the top performer on the team, might be the most willing to help."

The study was co-authored by Steffanie Wilk, an associate professor at Ohio State, and Nathan Pettit, an assistant professor at New York University.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.