Why Are Employees Counterproductive?: The Role of Social Stressors, Job Burnout and Job Resources

Lukasz Baka


The research on occupational stress conducted over the past 60 years has shown that the negative effects of work-related stress are particularly pronounced in two areas: mental health and the organizational behaviors of employees. Regarding the former aspect, numerous empirical studies have unanimously proved that working environment stressors are a source of diverse somatic ailments (e.g. cardiovascular problems, muscle and bone pains) and mental health problems (e.g. burnout and depression).

The negative impact of work-related stressors may be mitigated by both the characteristics of the working environment (e.g. social support by management and coworkers), and the individual characteristics of employees (e.g. temperament type). In turn, the second area concerning the relationship between work-related stressors and negative organizational behaviors seems to have been less studied. Over the past decades, counterproductive work behavior (CWB), defined as voluntary actions that harm or are intended to harm an organization or people associated with it - e.g. management, co-workers, clients - has been widely explored, in particular by American researchers in the field.

According to the stressor-emotion model (Spector and Fox 2005), the primary sources of CWB are stressors occurring in the working environment, notably those related to social relations, e.g. interpersonal conflicts and workplace bullying (Bruk-Lee and Spector 2006; Kessler et al. 2013), and conducive to strong negative emotions, e.g. anger or hostility. Counterproductive work behavior is a form of releasing these emotions and taking revenge on the organization for the “bad” treatment. The mediating role of negative emotions has been widely supported by empirical evidence (e.g. Bauer and Spector 2015; Fox et al. 2001; Penney and Spector 2007). It seems, however, that apart from negative emotions at work, which are a direct and relatively short-term reaction to stressful situations, there are other, somewhat more stable over time, mediating factors that the stress-emotion model does not account for. An example of such a factor is job burnout. Previous research has shown that burnout develops as a result of a long-term, chronic stress at work (e.g. Maslach et al. 2001) and is positively associated with various types of counterproductive w'ork behaviors (e.g. Banks et al. 2012; Luksyte et al. 2011). In addition, the impact of social stressors may be weakened by individual job resources - e.g. job control and social support at work (Fox et al. 2001). The aim of this chapter is to examine (1) the direct relationship between social stressors and CWB; (2) the mediational effect of job burnout and (3) the moderating effect of job resources on the social stressors and CWB link. Two types of social stressors have been considered, i.e. interpersonal conflicts at work and workplace bullying, and two types of job resources, i.e. social support and job control.

Counterproductive Work Behaviors

A diverse taxonomy has been used in the literature to describe harmful behaviors at work. For example, these have been labeled organizational aggression (Neuman and Baron 1998), antisocial behavior (Giacalone and Greenberg 1997), criminal behavior (Hogan and Hogan 1989), deviance work behavior (Robinson and Bennett 1995) and organizational retaliatory behavior (Skarlicki and Folger 1997) or revenge behavior (Bies and Tripp 2005). Differences in terminology reflect the distinct theoretical approaches of the authors. For example, Neuman and Baron (Neuman 1998) derived their term from social psychology literature on aggression. Hogan and Hogan (1989) drew inspiration from criminology literature. Robinson and Bennett (Robinson and Bennett 1995) emphasized the violation of norms and organizational principles, whereas Skarlicki and Folger (1997) referred to the theory of justice. Despite these differences, the abovementioned behaviors are treated as examples of activities pertaining to a broadly defined category of negative organizational behaviors, hereinafter referred to as counterproductive work behavior. The latter term constitutes a terminological umbrella construct (Spector and Fox 2005), covering the aforementioned behaviors.

Typology of Counterproductive Work Behavior

Richard Hollinger and John Clark (Hollinger 1983) seem to have been pioneers of the first typology of counterproductive work behavior. Following an extensive study conducted on a large sample of employees based at three industrial plants, the researchers distinguished two general categories - property deviance and production deviance. The first group included thefts, destruction of property and abuse of privileges. The second category included various forms of non-compliance with work schedules (delays, extended breaks, leaving the workplace, leaving earlier), and activities reducing productivity (e.g. deliberate work delays, sluggishness, drinking alcohol at work). Both categories therefore corresponded to activities that hindered the achievement of organizational goals.

A decade later, two American researchers, Sandra Robinson and Rebecca Bennett, further developed the typology proposed by Hollinger and Clark (Hollinger 1983) by introducing an additional category of negative interpersonal behavior toward managers and co-workers (Bennett and Robinson 2000; Robinson and Bennett 1995). Based on advanced statistical methods, the authors distinguished two dimensions of CWB (Figure 5.1). The first dimension refers to the direction of counterproductive work behaviors. At the top end of the spectrum there are counterproductive work behaviors aimed at the organization as a whole, whereas at the bottom end there are behaviors directed at people connected with the organization. The second dimension concerns the degree of harm caused by CWB, whereby there have been identified minor and more serious counterproductive work behaviors located on opposite sides. The result is a matrix covering four CWB groups: production deviance, property deviance, political deviance, and personal aggression. In each group, the authors identified four types of counterproductive work behaviors, which yet make up only basic examples of such behaviors, and the full list is more exhaustive.

A more recent CWB classification has been proposed by researchers at the University of Florida under the supervision of Paul Spector and Suzy Fox (Spector 2005). Following a literature review and the authors’ unique study results, the researchers distinguished five categories of counterproductive work behaviors -abuse, sabotage, production deviance, theft and organizational withdrawal. Table

5.1 presents a brief overview of the five types of counterproductive work behaviors.

Spector et al. (2006) introduced a distinction between active and passive CWB. The active forms include abuse, theft and sabotage, whereas the passive CWBs comprise production deviance and organizational withdrawal. The main source of active CWB forms is the intention to retaliate against the organization for “harm” and “humiliation”, or unfair treatment suffered in the organization. These behaviors are based on affective motives - they are driven by strong emotions of anger, hostility and frustration. Their purpose is to release tension or punish the organization. Active CWBs are usually targeted directly at the source of stress and negative emotions (e.g.



  • • Leaving early
  • • Taking excessive breaks
  • • Intentionally working slow
  • • Wasting resources


  • • Sabotaging equipment
  • • Accepting kickbacks
  • • Lying about hours worked
  • • Stealing from company

MINOR ◄----------------


  • • Showing favoritism
  • • Gossiping about co-workers
  • • Blaming co-workers
  • • Competing nonbeneficially
  • -----------------► SERIOUS


  • • Sexual harassment
  • • Verbal abuse
  • • Stealing from co-workers
  • • Endangering co-workers


FIGURE 5.1 Typology of counterproductive work behavior by Robinson and Bennett (Robinson I995).

managers, co-workers, organization’s property). However, such behavior can be met with hostile reactions from managers and colleagues, as well as major organizational sanctions. This is notably the case when there is a significant disproportion in power relations between the manager and the employee. Therefore, in some cases, there are passive CWB variations - i.e. production deviance and organizational withdrawal.

Social Stressors as a Source of Counterproductive Work Behavior

At the end of the 1990s, two theoretical models were developed that sought to identify the mechanisms of counterproductive work behaviors, and built upon the premises of the theory of social exchange. These models are the retaliatory behavior model developed by the Canadian researchers Daniel Skarlicki and Robert Folger (Skarlicki 1997; Folger and Skarlicki 2005), and the revenge model proposed by the American researchers Robert Bies and Thomas Tripp (Bies 1997, 1998, 2005). Essentially, the two models are comparable to each other. Counterproductive work behavior is equally considered a behavioral response to “bad” interpersonal relations - e.g. unfair treatment by managers, psychological contract breach, interpersonal conflicts and experiences of workplace bullying or aggression at work. As the main


Typology of Counterproductive Work Behaviors by Spector et al. (2006)


Abuse of others is a violent behavior that aims to inflict physical or psychological harm on people associated with the organization. There are five types of work-related abuses - physical aggression (e.g. hitting, pushing), verbal aggression (e.g. shouting, calling, intimidating), offensive behaviors (e.g. offensive gestures, aggressive looks), ostracism (e.g. isolating someone, omitting someone’s contribution, avoiding contact), instigation (e.g. persuading someone to carry out dangerous or forbidden activities). Abuse can also take the form of actively taking harmful actions or knowingly refraining from helpful actions or having a passive attitude.


Thefts are treated as a manifestation of aggressive behavior toward the organization as a whole. They consist of an unauthorized appropriation of company property by employees, or for their own use or sale to third parties. Some researchers also include time theft and deterioration in the quality of work in this definition. Thefts may be emotionally motivated and motivated by a desire to retaliate against the organization, or they may be driven by instrumental motives - the desire to obtain concrete benefits.


Sabotage is defined as deliberately harming, disrupting or boycotting the activities of the organization in order to achieve one’s own goals. Sabotage involves both mild forms of behavior such as ignoring supervisor orders, deliberately delaying work, deliberately reducing the quality of work, dirtying and littering the workplace and creating a negative image of the company, as well as more severe forms of behavior such as deliberately destroying employer property, damaging equipment, violating laws and regulations, ignoring plans, misusing equipment or objects and using more materials than necessary.

Production deviance

Production deviance consists of an intentional decline of performance and quality of work, performing work in an inefficient way, failing to follow the recommendations and procedures and consciously making mistakes, as well as failing to report problems and abuses at the workplace to supervisors. While sabotage is treated as an active form of counterproductive work behavior, production deviance accounts for more passive forms. Because it is not targeted at specific employees, it is less visible on a daily basis, and thus more difficult to prove than sabotage. Sabotage and production deviance can be both emotional (e.g. a release of anger) and instrumental (e.g. forcing organizational changes).

Organizational withdrawal

Organizational withdrawal is a conscious undertaking of behaviors aimed at limiting the time spent on performing professional duties, as well as reducing the amount of energy spent on work. Such behaviors include intentional delay, shortening of working hours, extending breaks, leaving the workplace earlier, intentionally slowing down performance, taking days off that are not due and simulating illness. One of the manifestations of the withdrawal has also been increasingly described in literature, the phenomenon of cyber loafing, which involves surfing the Internet during working hours. This type of counterproductive work behavior consists of bringing losses to the organization through intentionally "doing nothing”.

mechanism of these behaviors, the authors of both models identify the desire to take revenge for the harm suffered and punish the “unjust” organization.

These approaches refer to Adams’ equilibrium (1965), a classical concept in psychology. It implies that employees more or less consciously compare their own balance of contributions and profits with that of contributions and profits of other employees. If this comparison turns out to be unfavorable, a subjective state of imbalance appears. The greater the imbalance, the greater the discomfort the employee feels, and the stronger the motivation to restore the balance. One way to restore balance is to engage in active counterproductive work behaviors, such as reducing effort, committing theft and damage to property or leaving the workplace unauthorized. This has been supported by both correlation and experimental studies. For example, Skarlicki and Folger (Skarlicki 1997) proved that an employee’s response to unfair treatment in the organization can be a strong negative emotion (e.g. anger, rage, frustration), and a tendency to compensate for damages, e.g. thefts, acts of vandalism, organizational sabotage and reduction of work effort. In turn, Greenberg (1990) has shown that causing employees to feel injustice leads to increased theft and fluctuation in organization.

Previous research has also shown that over 90% of employees who have suffered harmful treatment from other co-w'orkers or managers consider similar behavior as an available way of reciprocal action (Tripp and Bies 1997), and only 10% of employees cannot specify a negative personal reaction in their previous professional careers that would have been motivated by a desire to retaliate against the organization (Bies and Tripp 2005). Other studies have shown that revenge is socially acceptable to some extent. When the negative behavior is a reaction to a provocation or misconduct by other employees, it is deemed justified, even if it takes a drastic form and its consequences are more severe than those of the provocative behavior (Tripp et al. 2002). Particularly burdensome social stressors include interpersonal conflicts at work and bullying on account of managers.

Interpersonal Conflicts and Counterproductive Work Behavior

Interpersonal conflicts at work are an example of social stressors relating to the quality of relations among employees. They are based on negative, strenuous interactions between managers and co-workers. The friction often varies in intensity, from minor quarrels to a mental struggle (Spector and Jex 1998). Interpersonal conflicts can take many forms: open (e.g. open criticism or discrediting of an employee), or hidden (e.g. gossiping about co-workers), active (e.g. arguing, offensive comments), or passive (e.g. neglect, intentionally not answering phone calls).

In a survey study conducted by Keenan and Newton (Keenan 1985) engineers were asked to specify particularly stressful incidents that had taken place at the company. Among the identified situations, 74% related to social relations among managers, employees and co-workers, while interpersonal conflicts were the second most frequently mentioned stressor at work. Intercultural research has yielded similar results. In one such study, U.S. and Indian sales staff rated 11 stressors at work in terms of mental stress. Interpersonal conflict was the third highest rated stressor in the U.S. group and the fourth highest in the Indian group (Narayanan et al. 1999). Also, in a study conducted on an American-Chinese academic employee sample, interpersonal conflict was perceived as a significant stress factor (Liu et al. 2010). Interestingly, the U.S. employees were more likely to have conflicts with lower-level staff than with fellow colleagues, and these were conflicts of an open character. In turn, hidden interpersonal conflicts between co-workers were predominant among the Chinese employee group. The researchers observed differences in the consequences of interpersonal conflicts, depending on the nature of the conflict, such as a conflict between co-workers, or a difficult employee-manager relationship. While conflicts with co-workers led to more personal consequences (e.g. lowered mood, or self-esteem), conflicts with managers engendered organizational outcomes, such as diminished job satisfaction, or exacerbation of harmful behaviors at work. A strong relationship between interpersonal conflicts and counterproductive work behaviors has been demonstrated in several studies conducted in the United States, Turkey, Italy and Poland. Apart from several single studies, at least two study meta-analyses have confirmed the associations between the discussed phenomena. The corrected correlation coefficients of interpersonal conflicts and counterproductive work behaviors were p = 0.38; p < 0.001 (Hershcovis et al. 2007) and p = 0.48; p < 0.001 (Berry et al. 2012), respectively.

Workplace Bullying and Counterproductive Work Behavior

The literature in the field offers many accounts of research examining the relationship between the experience of workplace bullying and counterproductive work behaviors (Einarsen et al. 2003; Warszewska 2013). In a study conducted by Italian researchers (Balducci et al. 2011) the results revealed that workers experiencing workplace bullying were more likely to display harassing behaviors in relation to fellow co-workers (r = 0.39; p < 0.001). Bibi and Karim (Bibi 2013) have shown that workplace bullying is positively associated with the five dimensions of counterproductive work behavior identified by Spector and Fox (2005). The strongest correlation has been found between workplace bullying and organizational withdrawal (r = 0.55; p < 0.001), while the weakest was between workplace bullying and sabotage (r = 0.25; p < 0.001). A positive correlation between workplace bullying and general counterproductive work behaviors (r = 0.26) has also been observed in longitudinal studies with a two-month measurement interval (Sakurai and Jex 2012).

One of the forms of workplace bullying is abusive supervision, defined as employee subjectively perceived level of verbal and non-verbal hostility of the manager (Tepper 2000). Such management practice includes using offensive nicknames in relation to employees, yelling at employees, aggressive gestures, intimidation, mocking of mistakes, failing to share information, inciting dangerous or punishable activities and isolation. Numerous studies have proven that degrading treatment on behalf of management results in frustration and intensification of retaliatory tendencies among employees (e.g. Mitchell and Ambrose 2007). For example, in a study conducted by Mitchell and Ambrose (2007), abusive supervision behaviors were associated with an increase in counterproductive work behavior directed both directly toward the manager (r = 0.40), other co-workers (r = 0.17) and at the organization as a whole (r = 0.20).

Over the last few years, several longitudinal studies have been carried out in which researchers have examined the relationship between abusive supervision and counterproductive employee behavior (Simon 2015; Wei and Si 2013). In one such study, six measurements were conducted over six months, whereby the experience of abuse of authority by a manager, measured in the first month, was associated with employee counterproductive work behavior, measured in consecutive months. Interestingly, the high level of employee counterproductive work behavior reversely led to the intensification of harassing behaviors by the manager. The study results indicate that there is a certain negative spiral gain between these two factors. Similarly, Chinese researchers, in a longitudinal five-fold measurement study, identified a positive relationship between abusive supervision and all dimensions of counterproductive work behavior (Wei and Si 2013). They observed the weakest dependencies in the relationship between abuse and sabotage, and the strongest in the relationship between abuse and theft.

Job Burnout as a Mediator of the Relationship between Social Stressors and Counterproductive Work Behavior

Job burnout is defined as a result of excessive job demands and lack of sufficient resources to cope with these requirements (Demerouti et al. 2001). It comprises two components: exhaustion and disengagement from work. The authors describe exhaustion as a result of persistent, chronic tension caused by physical, emotional and cognitive job demands. Hence, the researchers put emphasis not only on the emotional but also on the physical and cognitive aspects of exhaustion. Disengagement from work is described as a withdrawing attitude in relation to clients, co-workers, work tasks and the entire working environment, e.g. professional duties, organizational values and culture.

The mediating role of job burnout in the relationship between work stressors and counterproductive work behavior has not been the subject of wider research. Several studies have shown that job burnout mediates the effect of stressors on employee counterproductive work behaviors, such as absenteeism (Bakker et al. 2003), low performance (Bakker et al. 2004) and disrespectful handling of clients (van Jaarsveld et al. 2010). Two other studies have supported the mediating role of job burnout in the relationship between insufficient workload and counterproductive work behaviors (Luksyte et al. 2011), and in the relationship between excessive workload and counterproductive work behaviors (Smoktunowicz et al. 2015).

Other studies have shown that job burnout is a form of self-defense, a protective mechanism in coping with excessive job demands, such as in special character professions involving close and emotionally exhausting relations with patients or beneficiaries of support (Cordes and Dougherty 1993). Maslach et al. (2001), among techniques used by employees to distance themselves from job demands, has identified the use of professional jargon, intellectualization, maintaining a clear work/ life boundary, humor and withdrawal of work engagement. More recent studies have revealed that distanced employees have much worse attitudes toward the entire workplace context, e.g. they have lower work engagement levels (Banks et al. 2012), create negative categorizations and more often perceive their co-workers as “the other” (Bolton et al. 2012). Counterproductive work behaviors may also appear as a consequence of the distanced, negative attitude toward work. It is worth mentioning here the conservation of resources theory (Hobfoil 2006). It implies that workers with high levels of exhaustion and low levels of resources should be strongly motivated to manage the resources rationally - to save the remaining resources and to recover the resource already used. This can be achieved by reducing work engagement and performance levels, avoiding a high workload, frequent absenteeism, work delays and extended breaks. For example, an intentional decline in performance levels can contribute to energy saving, while prolonged rest breaks and absenteeism can help in recovering physical and mental strength (Krischer et al. 2010; Wilson 2015).

It thus seems that job burnout plays an important role in the emergence of negative behaviors at work. The evidence has supported the direct relationship between job burnout and various types of counterproductive work behaviors (e.g. Banks et al. 2012; Bolton et al. 2012; Liang and Hsieh 2007; Leiter and Robichaud 1997), as well as the mediating role of job burnout in the relationship between work stressors and counterproductive work behaviors (Luksyte et al. 2011; Smoktunowicz et al. 2015; van Jaarsveld et al. 2010). However it remains unclear how the individual job burnout components mediate the relationship between work stressors and counterproductive work behavior. Accordingly, the mediating role of two job burnout components (i.e. exhaustion and disengagement from work) is the subject of the present study.

The Moderating Role of Job Control and Social Support at Work

Following the stressoremotion model (Spector and Fox 2005), employees with strong job control less often engage in counterproductive work behaviors when confronted with work stressor experiences. This premise stems from the tradition of occupational stress research, conducted in the context of the job demands-control model (Karasek 1979), whereby job control has been identified as a stress buffer. Further research into the role of job control has shown that it does indeed play a beneficial role, in particular when combined with social support (Karasek and Theorell 1990; Hausser et al. 2010). The cumulative role of job control and social support has been emphasized in many stress concepts, including the demands-control-support model (Karasek and Theorell 1990), the conservation of resources theory (Hobfoil 2006) and the job demands-resources model (Bakker et al. 2003). At a general level, these concepts presume that the negative effects of stress are a result of the combined effects of high job demands, low job control and low social support. In the vast majority of studies, job control and social support have been analyzed in the context of occupational health. Since the primary sources of CWB are work stressors, it is worth examining whether these resources also reduce the level of CWB.

The authors of the stressor-emotion model have built on a premise that the very awareness of job control, i.e. the freedom of action, the possibility of independent decision making, testing new solutions and taking responsibility for achieved results, may empower employees to cope more effectively with stressful situations, and experience a lower number of negative emotions. Nevertheless, this concept has not been empirically confirmed. In two known studies, the moderating effect of job control in the relationship between stressor and counterproductive work behavior has been tested (Fox et al. 2001; Tucker et al. 2009). Both study results are inconsistent with the stressor-emotion model (Spector and Fox 2005). One of the studies has demonstrated that job control intensifies (and does not buffer) the effect of interpersonal conflicts on counter-productive behaviors (Fox et al. 2001). Similar results have been obtained by Tucker et al. in longitudinal, six-month measurement interval studies in a group of peacekeeping mission soldiers, including soldiers deployed in Kosovo and Kuwait missions. When confronted with excessive duty service demands, soldiers with the greatest job control most often violated military discipline and regulations (Tucker et al. 2009). These data have shown that job control, in many theories perceived as a stress buffer, may in fact exacerbate stress in some cases.

As for the moderating role of social support, a recent study by Chinese researchers has demonstrated that support from managers and co-workers buffers the negative effect of work stressors (i.e. conflict, role uncertainty and work overload) on counterproductive work behavior (Chiu et al. 2015). Also, a Polish study has proved that a high level of social support at work mitigates the direct association between workload and counterproductive work behavior (Smoktunowicz et al. 2015). However, other researchers have not confirmed the moderating role of social support at work in the relationship between negative emotions and counterproductive work behaviors (Sakurai and Jex 2012).

The aim of the present research is to investigate the direct relationship between two types of social stressors (i.e. interpersonal conflicts at work and workplace bullying) and to determine how two components of job burnout (i.e. exhaustion and disengagement from work) mediate this relationship. The moderating role of job control and social support will also be examined. The research hypotheses are outlined below:

Hl: Social stressors are positively associated with counterproductive work behavior.

H2: Exhaustion mediates the effect of social stressors on counterproductive work behavior.

H3: Disengagement from work mediates the effect of social stressors on counterproductive work behavior.

H4: Job resources buffer the effect of social stressors on counterproductive work behaviors.

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