The Role Managers and HR Practices Play in Curbing Toxic Workplace Behaviors

New research from Rutgers University looks at how harmful workplace behaviors like bullying, missing work, and loafing can have a detrimental effect on the overall organization. To mitigate this, researchers suggest having managers model good behavior and having HR practices and policies in place that improve employee engagement.

Many associations have focused on adapting to new changes in the way people work brought about by the pandemic. And while adapting to change is important, associations also can’t forget about some of the common problems that occur no matter how you work. New research from Rutgers University looks at how counterproductive work behaviors by staff affect organizations, and what managers and HR departments can do to help.

“These are behaviors that can harm either the well-being of the unit, or it can harm the well-being of the organization as a whole,” said Nichelle Carpenter, an associate professor of human resource management at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.

In the study, “Unit-Level Counterproductive Work Behavior (CWB): A Conceptual Review and Quantitative Summary,” Carpenter and colleagues noted that harmful work behaviors like bullying, stealing, loafing on the job, and chronically showing up late or missing work have a negative impact on the overall organization.

Look at Structures, Not Individuals

When an employee exhibits counterproductive behaviors, it’s easy for the organization to simply blame the employee. However, it’s typically not just the individual that is at fault. There are some organizational problems showing up in individual behavior.

“Previously, the way that we would try to address counterproductive behavior would be to just focus on the one individual employee,” Carpenter said. “If we just focus on one individual employee’s bad behavior, we’re likely to miss a lot of a lot of what’s happening.”

Instead, associations should branch out and look at the whole organization.

“We shouldn’t assume that the behaviors can be addressed in isolation,” Carpenter said. “If we see just one person engaging in the behavior, it’s likely that it’s something that many workers in the organization or in the team are also engaging in. Our study shows that it’s important to look at the broader context.”

When examining the broader context, a good place to start is manager behavior, because that’s where individual staff often take their cues.

“When we’re at work, we’re trying to get a sense of what behaviors are expected,” Carpenter said. “What are behaviors that are inappropriate? What are the behaviors that are rewarded or penalized? We know if the leader is engaging in these dysfunctional behaviors themselves, then it kind of sends a signal that these are the behaviors that are also likely to be appropriate.”

She noted the reverse is also true: “When leaders are honest, when they treat their workers or their units with respect and they treat them fairly, that also trickles down into kind of what the unit thinks are appropriate behaviors.”

HR Can Also Help

Beyond managers, organizations should also review their current HR policies.

“Look at just the structures and the policies in place,” Carpenter said. “Do people have enough training and development? Are they trained about what bullying behaviors are? Do people feel like they’re compensated fairly?”

Staff can become disengaged and more likely to engage in counterproductive behaviors if the collective attitudes are negative.

“That’s one way that HR can play a role of just trying to understand, are there collective attitudes or perceptions that could be connected to these negative behaviors?” Carpenter said. “The other part is making sure that people have development opportunities. Investing in workers can help to build this collective sense of satisfaction, engagement, and fairness.”

What policies and other structures does your association have in place to mitigate counterproductive behaviors? Share in the comments.

(Antoine2K/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!