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date: 19 June 2018

Workplace Deviance

Summary and Keywords

The history of workplace deviance research has evolved from a focus on singular behaviors, such as theft or withdrawal in the 1970s and 1980s, to the broader focus on a range of behaviors in the 21st century. This more inclusive cluster of related “dark side” behaviors is made up of voluntary behaviors that violate significant organizational norms and in so doing threaten the well-being of an organization, its members, or both. Examples of behaviors that fall in this domain are employee theft and sabotage of organizational goods, services, data, customer lists, materials, working slow, calling in sick when you are not, bullying, harassment, discrimination, and gossip. Workplace deviance can be targeted at other individuals in the organization (coworkers, supervisors, subordinates) or at the organization itself, or both. Typically the actor’s perspective is considered, but other relevant views of the behavior include the supervisor/the organization, peers, customers, or other third parties. Many causes have been studied as sources of deviant workplace behaviors, for example personality characteristics such as neuroticism or low conscientiousness, modeling others’ behavior, experiences of injustice, uncertainty, lack of control or feelings of anger, frustration, and dissatisfaction. Nowadays, some researchers are returning to a focus on individual behaviors, or smaller clusters of behaviors such as sexual misconduct, gossip, and even constructive deviance, and the outcomes of workplace deviance on actors, targets, and observers are being investigated.

Keywords: workplace deviance, counterproductive work behaviors, interpersonal deviance, organizational deviance, organizational retaliation, incivility, workplace aggression

Workplace deviance (Bennett & Robinson, 2000; Robinson & Bennett, 1995) has plagued companies for centuries (Coye, Murphy, & Spencer, 2010; Klotz & Buckley, 2013). For instance, mutinies, which are a type of upward defiance that involves organizational members organizing a movement intended to undermine and disrupt legitimate authority, have occurred for at least four centuries (Coye et al., 2010). However, it was not until the Industrial Revolution, when more modern forms of companies began to be established, that deviant behaviors in organizations started to be studied by management scholars (Klotz & Buckley, 2013).

Workplace deviance has been a pervasive problem for companies and their employees, as well as for their customers. Earlier research showed that between 50% and 75% of employees engaged in some form of deviant behavior (e.g., Bennett & Robinson, 2000; Harper, 1990; Harris & Ogbonna, 2002; Slora, 1991); however, more recent studies demonstrate that more than 90% of employees admit to participating in some type of workplace deviance (e.g., Marasi, 2014; Marasi, Bennett, & Budden, 2018). These recent findings of increased engagement in deviant behaviors may be due to either employee participation in these behaviors becoming more prevalent or simply employees feeling more comfortable disclosing their participation in these socially undesirable behaviors (which may be due to the data collection process, as the latter studies used online third-party organizations that allowed the subjects to have the perception of complete anonymity). Regardless of the cause for the increase in reported deviant behaviors in the workplace, workplace deviance remains an unremitting and inescapable problem for companies.

Participation in workplace deviance is a serious issue, as it has not only become more common but is also very costly for organizations and society, as well as for customers or employees (Bennett & Robinson, 2003). Organizations bear the highest cost, with annual estimations being in the billions worldwide. In the United States alone, the annual cost estimation is in the millions (Case, 2000; Harris & Ogbonna, 2006; Murphy, 1993), leading the United States Department of Commerce to determine that it causes about a third of all United States organizational bankruptcies. When deviant behaviors are targeted toward other employees, these employees may experience monetary costs (e.g., due to injury or theft of personal property) as well as mental or emotional costs (e.g., anguish, frustration, confusion, stress, or being afraid). In regard to societal costs, when companies lose money due to deviant behaviors (e.g., theft) organizations attempt to compensate for the loss by raising prices, resulting in the public (or customers) suffering monetary costs (due to the rising prices). Customers experiencing or witnessing deviant behaviors may experience similar emotional and mental distress to that of employees (e.g., frustration, anger, or stress), which may result in customers boycotting the company or perhaps even filing a lawsuit. However, little research has investigated the causes of employees’ behaving deviantly towards customers and the impact these behaviors have on customers and their reactions to the acts (e.g., Darrat, Amyx, & Bennett, 2010; Swimberghe, Jones, & Darrat, 2014).


Workplace deviance is defined as “voluntary behavior that violates significant organizational norms and in so doing threatens the well-being of an organization, its members, or both” (Robinson & Bennett, 1995, p. 556). Workplace deviance behaviors (WDB) have been mainly examined at the individual level in research studies. However, workplace deviance behaviors can also be analyzed at the group level (e.g., Priesemuth, Schminke, Ambrose, & Folger, 2014; Robinson & O’Leary-Kelly, 1998), business unit level (e.g., Dunlop & Lee, 2004), and organizational level (e.g., Ermann & Lundman, 1978; Hans & Ermann, 1989).

Workplace Deviance Development

Robinson and Bennett’s (1995) seminal study used an empirical technique, multidimensional scaling (MDS), to determine the perceived similarities among a broad collection of behaviors derived from the definition of deviant workplace behavior. MDS is a useful tool for producing inductive, but empirically derived, typologies. MDS techniques enable researchers to produce a typology using the perceptions of a diverse set of individuals who are blind to the purpose of a given study. Hence, MDS-based typologies are less prone to researchers’ biases than typologies developed through other methods. MDS involves several distinct phases of data collection and analysis (Robinson & Bennett, 1995; Kruskal & Wish, 1978).

Robinson and Bennett’s (1995) MDS process first involved employees being asked for examples of behaviors they had witnessed that were “wrong” or “bad” at work. After unclear and redundant behavioral examples were eliminated, a list of 45 behaviors remained. The MDS analysis is built on comparison scores so multiple comparisons of each of the 45 behaviors to every other behavior on the list were required. Since it would be mind-numbing for a research subject to make the 45 × 45 comparisons, each participant compared two focal behaviors from the list to every other behavior on the list; thus, each participant made 88 total comparisons (2 × (n-1)). Respondents were requested to indicate the amount of similarity between the focal behavior and each other behavior on the list on a Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (very similar) to 9 (very different).

From the similarity matrix, Robinson and Bennett used MDS to calculate the underlying dimensions of the behavior. The greater the perceived distance between the objects, the greater the distance between them in the spatial configuration. The plotting of these distances in two-dimensional space is presented in Figure 1. Labels were then correlated to the dimensions; the best-fitting dimensional identifiers were target and severity of the behavior. The severity dimension varies from minor deviant behaviors, such as coming into work late or gossiping, to more severe deviant behaviors, such as assaulting someone at work or sabotaging equipment. The target dimension represents the entity that the deviant behavior is targeted toward, resulting in either organizational deviance or interpersonal deviance. This dimension is the most commonly recognized and utilized in deviant behavior research. The organizational and interpersonal deviance dimensions are fairly highly correlated (as they should be, since they both involve negative workplace behaviors), but they also have distinct patterns of relationships and antecedents, showing they are unique constructs (Berry, Ones, & Sackett, 2007). Organizational deviance involves the organization itself being the target of the deviant behavior (physically, financially, or figuratively). Hence, organizational deviance consists of sabotage, theft of organizational property, and littering the work environment, as well as taking excessively long breaks, coming in to work late, using drugs or alcohol at work, and sharing company secrets with outsiders. Interpersonal deviance entails deviant behaviors targeted toward other individuals in the workplace (e.g., coworkers, supervisors, customers). Interpersonal deviance involves employees gossiping about coworkers, bosses showing favoritism, bosses refusing to give employees earned pay or benefits, and physical or verbal abuse of coworkers.

Workplace DevianceClick to view larger

Figure 1. Two-Dimensional Configuration of Deviant Behaviors.

The main focus of interpersonal deviance research has been on coworkers engaging in deviant behaviors directed toward their peers, subordinates, and supervisors; however, more recent interpersonal deviance research has focused on employee deviant behaviors directed toward customers (e.g., Darrat et al., 2010; Swimberghe et al., 2014). Additionally, a different type of interpersonal deviance has recently emerged in the literature, customer deviance or customer dysfunctional behavior (e.g., Daunt & Harris, 2012; Fisk et al., 2010; Yi & Gong, 2008). Customer deviance involves an organization’s customers engaging in deviant behaviors directed toward employees or the organization.

The two dimensions (target and severity) together yield a 2 × 2 typology. The four quadrants or types of workplace deviance are labelled by Robinson and Bennett (1995) as “production deviance” (minor harm directed towards the organization), “property deviance” (severe harm directed toward the organization), “political deviance” (minor harm directed toward other individuals in the workplace), and “personal aggression” (serious harm directed toward other individuals in the workplace). Refer to Figure 2 for a representation of the typology of deviant behaviors based on the four types as well as examples of each type.

Workplace DevianceClick to view larger

Figure 2. Typology of Deviant Behaviors.

Constructs Encompassing Workplace Deviance Dimensions

There are many terms used by researchers to refer to deviant work behaviors. Some are broad, while others take a narrower focus. In the following section, definitions are provided and distinctions made between many related constructs in this arena. The broad constructs are defined first, followed by narrower behavioral groups.

Counterproductive work behavior (CWB: Fox & Spector, 1999) is one such broad term. CWB refers to intentional employee behavior that is harmful to employees because it reduces their work effectiveness as well as harmful to the organization by damaging its property (e.g., equipment and facilities) or negatively impacting its functioning (Fox, Spector, & Miles, 2001). Therefore, CWB is considered to be interchangeable with workplace deviance (e.g., Berry, Carpenter, & Barratt, 2012; Dalal, 2005). Like workplace deviance, CWB is dimensionalized based on target (organizational versus person) and severity (minor versus serious). CWB has been further divided from the two dimensions of organizational (CWB-O) and person counterproductive work behaviors (CWB-P or CWB-I) into five subscales: Abuse, Theft, Production Deviance, Withdrawal, and Sabotage (Spector et al., 2006). CWB-P is represented by the Abuse subscale, while CWB-O is comprised of the Theft, Production Deviance, Withdrawal, and Sabotage subscales. The division of CWB into five subscales is the only difference it has with workplace deviance (which is divided into two primary types and four subgroups), since their definitions are basically the same. Another broad term which overlaps with the construct of workplace deviance is antisocial behaviors in organizations (ABO), which Giacolone and Greenberg (1997) define as “any behavior that brings harm or is intended to bring harm to an organization, its employees or stakeholders” (p. vii). ABO differs from workplace deviance in that it doesn’t specify the volitional nature of the behavior and includes the potential intention to harm, which WDB does not. Giacalone and Greenberg (1997) add that there are specific forms of ABO (e.g., litigation and whistleblowing) that have prosocial motivations.

Differing from WDB, CWB, and ABO are retaliation and revenge, which are a subset of behaviors whose definitions include intention to “get back at” a perceived slight. Revenge captures “an effort by the victim of harm to inflict damage, injury, discomfort, or punishment on the party judged responsible for causing the harm” (Aquino, Tripp, & Bies, 2006, p. 654). Similarly, Skarlicki and Folger (1997) define organizational retaliation behavior as negative behaviors “used to punish the organization and its representatives in response to perceived unfairness” (p. 435). Therefore, the behaviors differ definitionally in that they follow distinct employee perceptions, with revenge broadly following harm and retaliation following perceived injustice. These constructs are often cited as means of social control, in that revenge can deter further acts from the harm-doer in the future (Bies & Tripp, 1996).

Conceptual Map of Deviant Work-Related Constructs

Since the broad definitions of workplace deviance, antisocial organizational behaviors, and counterproductive workplace behaviors encompass a breadth of deviant workplace behavior constructs, many scholars have attempted to distinguish between, and even consolidate the number of, such constructs in the literature (e.g., Griffin & Lopez, 2005; Herschcovis, 2011; Tepper, 2000; Warren, 2003). A conceptual map of deviant work-related constructs is provided to demonstrate the overlap between these constructs, based on their definitions. The conceptual map is separated into groups of interpersonal deviant work-related constructs and organizational deviant work-related constructs (refer to Figure 3). The conceptual map shows that the majority of the constructs fall in the interpersonal deviance category and tend to be on the minor end of the severity dimension.

Workplace DevianceClick to view larger

Figure 3. Conceptual Concept Map of Deviant Behaviors.

Interpersonal Deviance

The constructs in the deviant behavior literature that fall on the interpersonal deviance side of the spectrum include workplace incivility and workplace aggression as well as its different forms, which consist of workplace bullying, organizational mobbing, abusive supervision, social undermining, workplace victimization, workplace harassment, sexual harassment, and workplace violence (see also Spector et al., 2006 and Hershcovis, 2011). Most of these terms take the victim/target’s perspective rather than providing an objective definition of the behavior. For example, definitions of these terms typically involve the perceptions of the target/victim of the actor’s intentions, and the scale items are written from the point of view of the target of the behavior.

Workplace incivility refers to rude and discourteous behavior that employees believe are being displayed by other organizational members and demonstrate a lack of regard for norms of respect (Andersson & Pearson, 1999). Specifically, workplace incivility is manifested in low-intensity behaviors which have ambiguous intent to harm, where the target may not know whether or not the perpetrator intended to harm them. On the other hand, workplace aggression refers to behavior that intends to cause harm to another employee or group of organizational members (Baron & Neuman, 1996; Hershcovis et al., 2007). The primary difference between workplace incivility and workplace aggression (as well as its different forms) is the severity of the behavior. Many severe behaviors that might be labeled as workplace aggression (e.g., knocking a coworker to the ground or spreading a malicious rumor that results in a coworker getting fired) may have other causes, such as protecting the coworker from danger or revenge, and thus do not actually classify as workplace aggression, despite their appearances. Harm is assumed but not necessarily established; it may be a side effect and not the intention of the action. In both of these examples, the goal of the actor may have been safety and security of coworkers rather than harm. In the first, the target of the behavior might have been protected from worse harm by being pushed out of the way of a sharp piece of metal. In the second, the actor may have spread the malicious rumor in an attempt to rid the organization of someone abusing her power and to also send the signal to others that such behavior will not be tolerated (e.g., a social control technique: Bies, Tripp, & Kramer, 1997).

Workplace bullying involves an employee believing he or she is the target of consistent negative actions or mistreatment by another organizational member in the workplace and having difficulty in defending him- or herself against the ill-treatment, which results in the targeted employee experiencing harm, mainly emotional harm but sometimes physical harm (Hoel & Cooper, 2001; Rayner & Keashley, 2005). Since victims have difficulty defending themselves against the ill-treatment, it stands to reason that the perpetrators are often those with authority or power over the mistreated employee (such as their supervisor), but peers and subordinates may also be workplace bullies (Rayner & Cooper, 2006). Similar in definition to workplace bullying are organizational mobbing, workplace victimization, abusive supervision, and social undermining.

Organizational mobbing is workplace bullying or sustained hostility perceived to be experienced by one employee that is exhibited from two or more organizational members (Leymann, 1996). Workplace victimization refers to an employee’s perception of aggressive behaviors from one or more other organizational members, whether sustained or momentary (Aquino & Bradfield, 2000). Abusive supervision refers to an employee’s perception of receiving continuous hostile verbal and nonverbal behaviors from a supervisor, but no physical contact occurs (Tepper, 2000). Social undermining refers to “behaviors intended to hinder, over time, the ability to establish and maintain positive interpersonal relationships, work-related success, and favorable reputation” (Duffy, Ganster, & Pagon, 2002, p. 332), which may be exhibited by supervisors, peers, or subordinates. Although the definition of social undermining seems to take the actor’s perspective, since it mentions intentions to hinder, the scale items are from the target’s perspective.

One of the differentiating factors among abusive supervision, organizational mobbing, workplace victimization, and social undermining involves the perpetrator, in that abusive supervision only views supervisors as perpetrators, while social undermining, organizational mobbing, and workplace victimization consider supervisors, coworkers, and subordinates all as potential perpetrators. Additionally, organizational mobbing, by definition, has multiple perpetrators, while social undermining and workplace victimization may potentially (but not necessarily) have more than one perpetrator, but abusive supervision only has one perpetrator (e.g., the supervisor). These constructs also differ based on intentions or objectives, in that with organizational mobbing, workplace victimization, and abusive supervision the intentions or objectives of the perpetrators or supervisor are unknown, but with social undermining the intentions or objectives are inferred, as they are to obstruct work-related relationships and success as well as to ruin the employee’s reputation (Tepper, 2007). Since all of these constructs overlap in regards to continuous mistreatment of an employee and the target’s perception of ill-treatment, “bullying” in the diagram represents workplace bullying, organizational mobbing, workplace victimization, abusive supervision, and social undermining.

Other forms of workplace aggression include workplace harassment, sexual harassment, and workplace violence. These behaviors may overlap with organizational deviance when they result in legal liabilities for the company as a result of the employee’s deviant behavior. Workplace harassment is repeated threatening behavior or offensive remarks directed toward an employee or group of employees, resulting in a hostile work environment (Ezer & Ezer, 2012). Generally, workplace harassment involves verbal abuse and discriminatory remarks about or towards a protected group under Title VII of the United States’ Civil Rights Act, which places the employee or group of employees at a disadvantage in the workplace. Sexual harassment is defined by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1980) as “unwelcome sexual advances, request for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” such as offensive or derogatory remarks or sexual assault. Both workplace harassment and sexual harassment may occur by employees or individuals not employed with the organization, such as customers. Workplace violence refers to physical assaults directed toward an employee or group of employees with the intention of causing physical pain, injury, or death (Neuman & Baron, 1998). The majority of workplace violence incidents, however, are initiated by individuals not employed with the organization (e.g., customers or individuals with no legitimate business with the company) rather than employees (Baron & Neuman, 1996). Since these three constructs are similar in that they can occur by employees or individuals outside of the organization and may result in the organization’s being sued for negligence, they are labelled “harassment” in the conceptual map.

Organizational Deviance

Organizational aggression refers to “efforts by individuals to harm others with whom they work or have worked, or the organizations in which they are currently or were previously employed.” (Neuman & Baron, 1997, p. 38). Therefore, organizational aggression includes only intentionally harmful behaviors, which is a narrower set than WDB, which includes behaviors where harm is or might be inadvertent. Since the definition of organizational aggression is very broad, many more-specific deviance constructs nest within it, such as workplace sabotage, organizational silence, organizational withdrawal, and theft.

Workplace sabotage refers to intentional employee actions that “damage, disrupt, or subvert the organization’s operations for the personal purposes of the saboteur by creating unfavorable publicity, embarrassment, delays in production, damage to property, the destruction of working relationships, or the harming of employees or customers” (Crino, 1994, p. 312). The target of organizational sabotage can be an individual, a group of individuals, or the organization, and it may also involve multiple targets (Ambrose, Seabright, & Schminke, 2002). Additionally, organizational sabotage may be performed overtly or covertly, in that other individuals or the organization may or may not be aware of the deviant action or who is engaging in the behavior. The results of organizational sabotage may be direct or indirect; thus, the effects of it may not be noticeable for an extended period of time. Since the definition extends to damaging workplace relationships and harming individuals (e.g., employees and customers), the construct also overlaps slightly with interpersonal deviance.

Organizational withdrawal refers to behaviors that reduce an employee’s efforts to complete work role tasks, such as minimizing the time spent on job tasks or avoiding tasks altogether, while maintaining their current organizational and work-role memberships (Hanisch & Hulin, 1990, 1991). Acts of organizational withdrawal are highly visible and hence are difficult to conceal or to perform covertly. Examples of organizational withdrawal include absenteeism, coming in late, leaving early, reduced work effort, disregarding work tasks, working on personal matters rather than work tasks, taking longer breaks or lunches, and malingering. The most extreme form of organizational withdrawal is turnover. Using Hanisch and Hulin’s definition of withdrawal casts it as a subset of Organizational Deviance with overlap outside of the boundary as well, since withdrawal may be due to (actual) illness or retirement as well. Broader definitions of withdrawal include other organizationally targeted behaviors such as theft in their measures (see, e.g., Lehman & Simpson, 1992), and hence result in a much stronger correlation between the two constructs (Carpenter & Berry, 2017). Withdrawal is a major component in the organizational WDB hierarchy. It is one of the key building blocks, but the construct of withdrawal does not contain property deviance behaviors such as sabotage and theft.

Organizational silence refers to employees intentionally or unintentionally withholding information, opinions, or concerns regarding the workplace and the organization (Morrison & Milliken, 2000). The refusal to provide information to the organization is a collective phenomenon in that most employees’ dominant response is to remain silent rather than participate in “voice” by expressing their thoughts, opinions, and needed information to the organization. Organizational silence may result from employees wanting to keep the status quo, groupthink, distrust of management, or the type of organizational structure (Khanifar et al., 2010). However, the intention of organizational silence tends to be ambiguous. Future studies may investigate the overlap between withdrawal and organizational silence. Organizational silence negatively affects organizations because it does not allow organizations to address issues, since they are unaware of them.

Organizational theft refers to an individual’s taking or transferring an organization’s money or property without authorization or permission and without the intent of returning it (Hollinger & Clark, 1983). Employees, customers, or other individuals with no legitimate business with the organization may all engage in organizational theft. Organizational theft conducted by employees may involve “sweethearting,” altruistic property deviance, dumpster diving, or stealing money or equipment. “Sweethearting,” or socially based theft, refers to employees giving away merchandise by pretending to scan the barcode on a register, not ringing up some of the merchandise, or giving a substantial discount for a “sweetheart” customer, such as a friend or family member (Hawkins, 1984; Morris, 2005). Altruistic property deviance refers to employees giving away merchandise to coworkers at a substantial discount or no charge in an attempt to improve interpersonal work relationships (Hollinger, Slora, & Terris, 1992). Dumpster diving refers to an employee claiming merchandise as defective and throwing it into a dumpster from where the merchandise can be retrieved later. Employee theft may be viewed differently by employees and employers, especially in regards to “sweethearting” and altruistic property deviance, in that employees may not view it as theft, since they are not personally keeping the “stolen” merchandise (Greenberg & Barling, 1996). However, all types of theft, whether performed by employees, customers, or individuals with no legitimate business with the company, are severe forms of organizational deviance due to their significant impact on an organization’s success and profits.

Main Theories for Explaining Deviant Behavior

Numerous theories have been utilized to explain workplace deviance: justice theory (Adams, 1963; Leventhal, 1980; Lind & Tyler, 1988), social exchange theory (Blau, 1964), reactance theory (Brehm, 1966), frustration-aggression (Berkowitz, 1969, 1989; Spector, 1978, 1997), aggression (Neuman & Baron, 1997), and social information processing theory (Salancik & Pfeffer, 1978) are some of the most frequently utilized.

Justice theory proposes that deviant workplace behaviors occur as a result of injustices experienced by employees. Individuals may engage in theft because they feel underpaid relative to coworkers who are contributing similar effort (Adams, 1963) or because they were not given an explanation for a pay cut (Greenberg, 1990). Meta-analyses on justice (Colquitt et al., 2001) and on workplace deviance (Berry et al., 2007; Dalal, 2005) show injustice as a primary cause of deviant workplace behavior.

Social exchange theory (Blau, 1964) argues that reciprocity occurs during an exchange process, where actions or behaviors are responded to in a similar manner to the original action or behavior (Blau, 1964; Cropanzano & Mitchell, 2005). Therefore, the theory suggests that social exchanges between two parties consist of multiple interactions that result in expectations of future reactions (due to reciprocal obligations) that are advantageous to each party (Blau, 1964; Cropanzano & Mitchell, 2005; Emerson, 1976). Accordingly, when the second party (e.g., the employee) experiences poor or negative treatment from the first party (e.g., the employing organization), the second party will most likely encounter an imbalance in the relationship (especially if the second party has been giving positive treatment to the first party). This discrepancy in treatment may cause the second party to resolve the negative treatment through retaliation by mimicking the first party’s perceived ill-treatment by participating in workplace deviance (Browning, 2008; Gouldner, 1960; Uhl-Bien & Maslyn, 2003).

Reactance theory (Brehm, 1966) argues that an individual will engage in “reactance” when he or she experiences a loss of autonomy such that freedom to make choices is interrupted. This “reactance” is motivated by restoration of the individual’s perception of control. Further, the theory suggests that when an individual feels restricted and unable to improve her situation, she may become frustrated, and thereby be more likely to engage in a negative and potentially destructive form of “reactance” to make up for the loss of autonomy and frustration experienced (Mitchell et al., 2011; Rothbaum, Weisz, & Snyder, 1982; Spector, 1978). Engagement in workplace deviance or antisocial work behaviors is an example of a negative “reactance.”

Frustration-aggression theory outlines a framework by which employee frustration provokes workplace deviance behaviors. The theory suggests that an environmental frustrator will cause an employee to make a cognitive appraisal to determine whether this frustrator interferes with an individual’s goals (Spector, 1997). A frustrator will lead an employee to experience frustration only when goal interference is perceived. Feelings of frustration are followed by a behavioral reaction that is not always antisocial behavior but can be inspired by emotions often associated with frustration, “ranging from minor annoyance to rage” (Spector, 1997, p. 2). Many factors determine whether an environmental reaction will lead to antisocial behavior, and a literature review suggests that lack of perceived control and delinquent personality may increase the likelihood of an antisocial reaction to frustration (Spector, 1997).

Aggression theory seeks to explain the cognitive, emotional, and arousal states that function to determine whether an employee will engage in aggression following a negative workplace event (Nueman & Baron, 1997). Unfavorable workplace events such as work stressors or a violation of norms have a direct effect on individual cognitions, affect, and state of arousal. For example, this can be seen in the form of hostile thoughts, feelings of anger, and physiological arousal in reaction to aversive events. Following these reactions, individuals seek to make sense of their thoughts and feelings by assessing the causes of the negative event. Finally, individuals determine the appropriate response to the events by assessing what can and should be done. This includes considering consequences of their actions, alternative behaviors, and other situational information. Altogether, this process leads to a final decision of whether or not to engage in aggression.

Social information processing theory (Salancik & Pfeffer, 1978) suggests that individuals operate in a social environment and adopt attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in order to make sense of complex social settings. In an organization, employees look to social cues such as interpersonal behaviors like leader behaviors and exchanges with peers to establish norms. Specific to deviance behaviors, research indicates that experiencing and witnessing negative events prompt more frequent sense-making searches. Therefore, social information processing theory has been used to explain the emergence of deviance climates such as abusive supervision climate (Priesmuth, Schminke, Ambrose, & Folger, 2014) because employees who witness and experience deviance will try to make sense of it by discussing it with coworkers and then come to shared conclusions about the negative behaviors, thus creating a climate where deviant behavior is normalized.

Antecedents of Deviant Behavior

Past research has investigated numerous situational, personal, and environmental factors to determine potential antecedents or predictors of workplace deviance or antisocial work behaviors. The main focus has been on situational and personal factors, with some studies integrating the two factors in models (e.g., Colbert et al., 2004; Henle, 2005; Judge, Scott, & Ilies, 2006; Kantur, 2010).

The situation-based perspective approaches organizational circumstances, treatment, and actions that occur within the workplace to be predictors of deviant behavior. The majority of these antecedents are within the organization’s control. Some examples of situational predictors that have been identified for deviant behaviors are organizational structure (Marasi et al., 2018), boredom (Bruursema, Kessler, & Spector, 2011), stress (Fox et al., 2001; Neuman & Baron, 1998), group norms (Sieh, 1987), job satisfaction (Mangione & Quinn, 1975), abusive supervision (Tepper, Duffy, & Shaw, 2001), and injustice perceptions (e.g., Colbert et al., 2004), especially for interpersonal injustice (e.g., Henle, 2005; Judge, Scott, & Ilies, 2006).

The person-based perspective views deviant behaviors as an outcome of the employee’s personality, emotions, or characteristics. Some examples of personal antecedents include personality (Colbert et al., 2004; Judge, LePine, & Rich, 2006), especially conscientiousness and agreeableness (Mount, Ilies, & Johnson, 2006; Salgado, 2002), negative emotions (Lee & Allen, 2002; Spector & Fox, 2002), negative affectivity (Richards & Schat, 2011), cognitive ability (Dilchert et al., 2007), low moral standards (Merriam, 1977), narcissism (Castille, Kuyumcu, & Bennett, 2016; Judge, LePine, & Rich, 2006; Penney & Spector, 2002), age (Berry et al., 2007; Ng & Feldman, 2008), and gender (Hershcovis et al., 2007).

Measures of Deviant Behaviors

The main technique used to study workplace deviance is anonymous self-report measures because individuals are not likely to share their level of participation in deviant behaviors with others (Spector, 1992; Bennett & Robinson, 2000). This method has been shown to yield the most honest and trustworthy reports of workplace deviance engagement among employees, because complete anonymity can be guaranteed due to third-party online survey organizations (e.g., Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, Survey Monkey, and Qualtrics) where participants’ employing organization is not collected and their identity is not provided to the researcher. Since no identifying information is provided to the researcher, this method has been shown to minimize social desirability effects over more traditional survey or interview methods. Nonetheless, respondents may have the illusion of anonymity, when actually their identity can be easily deciphered from their computer’s unique IP address.

There are two main scales used to measure deviant behaviors. The scales are Bennett and Robinson’s (2000) Workplace Deviance Scale and Spector and colleagues’ (Spector et al., 2006) Counterproductive Work Behavior Checklist.

The Workplace Deviance scale (Bennett & Robinson, 2000) is a 19-item scale, with seven items representing Interpersonal Deviance and Organizational Deviance consisting of 12 items. The scale can be further divided into four types of workplace deviance: production deviance, property deviance, political deviance, and personal aggression; however, the four types are rarely used as stand-alone, independent measures. The majority of studies that utilize this scale either analyze workplace deviance overall or divide it into the two main dimensions, interpersonal deviance and organizational deviance.

The Counterproductive Work Behavior (CWB) Checklist is commonly measured using a 33-item scale (Spector et al., 2006). However, the original CWB Checklist consists of 64 items (Fox et al., 2001). This scale can be divided into organizational (CWB-O), which consists of 15 items, and person counterproductive work behaviors (CWB-P or CWB-I), comprised of 18 items. The CWB Checklist can be further divided into five subscales: Abuse (18 items representing CWB-P), Theft (five items indicating CWB-O), Production Deviance (three items included in CWB-O), Withdrawal (four items representing CWB-O), and Sabotage (three items indicating CWB-O).

Another technique involves having the participants’ immediate supervisor or coworkers/peers complete the workplace deviance measure. Some researchers utilize the 15-item Non-Self-Report Workplace Deviance scale developed by Stewart and colleagues (Stewart et al., 2009) or transform the original Workplace Deviance scale or the CWB Checklist from a self-report measure to a third-party measure (e.g., Berry et al., 2012; Fox et al., 2007; Mann, Budworth, & Ismaila, 2012). Although this method eliminates common method variance and possibly social desirability bias, there are potential limitations to using this method. First, supervisors may not be aware of the employee’s level of engagement in deviant behaviors and therefore cannot give an accurate representation of the employee’s workplace deviance participation, thereby causing deviance to be underreported. Another limitation of this method is that the supervisor may desire to make him- or herself appear to be a good supervisor (one who does not have employees who engage in deviant behaviors) and hence may underreport or overlook employee’s deviant behaviors. Workplace peers would have a firsthand view of their coworker’s behavior and may be more inclined to give an accurate report of the behaviors. On the other hand, they may also be inclined to justify or cover up a liked coworker’s deviant behavior.

A question regarding deviant behavior measurement involves the anchors or scale points used. For instance, some researchers use frequency scale points, while other use agreement scale points. Spector, Bauer, and Fox (2010) argue, based on convincing empirical evidence, that anchors or scale points for deviant behavior scales should be based on frequency (e.g., daily to once a year or frequently to never) rather than agreement scales (e.g., “I highly agree/disagree that I frequently engage in this behavior”).

Key Controversies

Workplace deviance is defined as relative to norms of the dominant organizational culture. A question frequently asked is “What if the dominant culture does not consider lying/stealing from your boss to be ‘deviant’?” Robinson and Bennett (1995, 1997; Bennett & Robinson, 2000, 2003) have repeatedly pointed out that the focus should be on the violation of general norms that threaten the well-being of the organization, its members, or both. Hence, this is a moot point, as even in the mafia, stealing from and lying to the boss/organization are frowned upon. “Not following the boss’s orders,” which is and would still be considered workplace deviance, may, however, be considered ethical behavior in a criminal organization or a legitimate organization engaging in illegal or unethical behavior. Consequently, whether an organization is “good” or “bad” does not affect the definition of deviance and measurement of deviance.

It may be the case, however, that for the less serious behaviors, culture may impose boundary conditions on what is considered “deviant.” In Mediterranean cultures, timeliness is less important than it is in Northern European and Western cultures. Therefore, taking a longer lunch break is expected, and not considered deviant in these cultures. Another difference with some Middle Eastern cultures involves male employees taking time off to take their wives (who are not allowed to drive alone) on personal errands during the workday, whereas in the United States, this would be considered “deviant” workplace behavior. For this reason, behavioral check lists are not universally generalizable across cultures and may need to be adapted.

If cultures/countries differ in what is considered to be “deviant,” it may be acceptable to drop, add, or modify the deviant behavior scale items. Within a culture/country, depending on the employees and organization participating in the study, dropping, adding, or modifying items may be necessary as well. Many previous studies have altered the scale items to different extents with no interpretation issues occurring (e.g., Marasi, 2014; Marasi et al., 2018). Researchers may find it beneficial to add items to the Workplace Deviance scale or CWB Checklist because of a particular work environment or to get a better understanding of the participants’ engagement in different deviant behaviors. For instance, the healthcare industry may have unique behaviors that are considered deviant, such as not washing hands before interacting with a patient (customer). On the other hand, a few of the deviant behavior items may not apply to all employees or participants, such as “accepting kickbacks” or “misusing expense account,” and therefore, it is acceptable to drop these items from the scale or offer a “Not Applicable” option, which is represented by a zero on the scale.

The number of deviant behavior dimensions is another concern. Bennett and Robinson’s (2000) analyses suggested that there were two main dimensions: interpersonal and organizational deviance. However, Robinson and Bennett (1995) identified four types of workplace deviance, which are based on the two main dimensions and then subdivided into minor versus serious deviant behaviors. The two organizational deviance types are production deviance (minor) and property deviance (serious), whereas the interpersonal deviance types are political deviance (minor) and personal aggression (serious). Additionally, the CWB Checklist divides into two main dimensions, person and organizational, but can also be subdivided into five types. However, the most common method utilized in the literature for the dimensionality of deviant behaviors is based on the two main dimensions, interpersonal and organizational deviance. There is relatively little research utilizing the four types of the Workplace Deviance scale and the five subscales of the CWB Checklist.

Another controversial issue is whether workplace deviance is good or bad for individuals. Tripp and Bies (2009) have argued that workplace deviance that is born from revenge can be cathartic for victims and observers, as it returns a sense of justice. Of course, it can also escalate. Research on forgiveness, on the other hand, suggests that failing to engage in retaliation (e.g., forgiving) can result in performance declines in the work group, as slacking off goes unpunished (Cox, 2008; Cox et al., 2012). Research on revenge and forgiveness provides intriguing fodder for contemplating whether deviance for the sake of revenge is good or bad, and for whom.

A final controversy with the deviant behavior scales involves their reliability and average variance extracted (AVE) in structural equation modeling. This is mainly due to the scale’s item content and scale points (regardless of which measure is used, such as the Workplace Deviance scale or CWB Checklist). Generally, the scale’s reliability is rather high for the overall workplace deviance construct and its two main dimensions; however, the AVE tends to fall below minimum standards. This is expected because each item represents a completely separate deviant behavior and therefore it is feasible that an employee may participate in one item or deviant behavior but not in another deviant behavior (Marasi, Cox, & Bennett, 2016). For instance, an employee may engage in workplace deviance by withdrawing effort on the job but may not steal from the organization or leave work early. Another cause is the usage of a frequency scale, which is not equidistant, in that the distance between each scale point is not equal—since the scale points of 1 (daily), 2 (weekly), 3 (monthly) are not equivalent in time—nor symmetrical, in that there is not an equal number of positive and negative scale points with respective distances from the neutral scale point, whether the neutral scale point is presented as an option or not. Thus, a frequency scale may lead standardized loading estimates produced from structural equation modeling to be appropriate but lower than other constructs (Marasi et al., 2016). Therefore, it is expected and normal for any of the scales measuring deviant behaviors to be high in reliability and low in AVE, without the results being flawed or misinterpreted.

Future Questions

A thematic issue throughout this essay is that workplace deviance is both a behavior and a perception. Further research should investigate the implications of labeling employees’ behaviors as deviant. Does behaving in a way that observers label as deviant cause an employee to become a deviant individual? Do those who are labeled as behaving badly self-identify as deviant and then live up to their label? Is the employee deviant or is only their behavior deviant? Is there another option? Do their intentions matter? What if the deviance is well-intended (e.g., the drug-dealing father in the TV series Breaking Bad, who is just trying to take care of his family), or what if it is just one small part of an otherwise honorable person (e.g., the drug-abusing but otherwise wonderful Nurse Jackie in the TV series by the same name). Does it matter if the whistleblower desires to get his or her boss fired and for the company to go bankrupt or if he or she really wants to do the “right thing” and help society?

A similar question arises with victims of interpersonal deviance. Is the subordinate who experiences bullying or abusive supervision really a victim, or might they be a slacking employee, part of a work team who isn’t pulling his or her weight? Might they be considered rude and uncivil by their colleagues and hence reap workplace aggression as a result? How do we know which antisocial behavior came first? Who is the real victim in a workplace incivility or deviant behavior spiral?


Workplace deviance is a complex construct, consisting of various forms and types. The literature shows that it is a major problem for organizations worldwide and will continue to be, since the participation rates in various forms has increased over time. Therefore, the importance and continuation of workplace deviance research is expected. However, additional theoretical foundations and outcomes of workplace deviance are needed to enhance the literature.


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