Victims of workplace undermining become perpetrators: Study

by John Hilton15 Jun 2016
It turns out that one bad apple at a company can eventually result in many bad apples, according to a new study.

The latest research from the University at Buffalo School of Management has found that when employees are undermined at work they are likely to undermine their colleagues.

To combat this cycle of undermining, the study advises organisations to develop workplace ethics training programs and hire employees who value morality.

Managers can also emphasise moral values at work by displaying posters or slogans with such values, the study suggests.

When an employee is undermined, it hinders their ability to achieve success, maintain positive relationships and build their reputation, said the study’s lead author KiYoung Lee, PhD, assistant professor of organisation and human resources in the UB School of Management.

Lee added that this kind of “interpersonal aggression” costs organisations a lot of money each year in health problems, employee turnover and productivity loss.

The researchers surveyed 182 employees at 25 branches of two Korean banks, and conducted two rounds of surveys to measure whether those who had been the victim of undermining would later become a perpetrator.

The first survey measured employee’s levels of undermining victimisation, moral identity, interpersonal justice and also included control variables.

The second survey took place one month later and measured employee’s levels of moral disengagement, resource depletion and engaging in social undermining.

The study found that as victims feel they’ve been treated disrespectfully and unfairly, they feel entitled to be selfish to others.

“The fact that victims become selfish is troublesome because it makes it easier to rationalise doing harm to others,” said Lee.

“We use this to justify our actions, for instance, by calling undermining ‘part of the game’.”

The study is featuring in the Journal of Applied Psychology.