When job insecurity leads to sabotage

Being insecure about whether you’ll keep your job isn’t a great feeling, and new research by Professor of Management Ned Wellman has found that it could be bad for your company, too.

Workers who felt job insecurity reported a higher likelihood of deviant behaviors, such as taking company property, in the study done by Assistant Professor of Management Ned Wellman. “Traditionally, the perspective that people have taken is that when you’re insecure about your job, you’re less likely to do good things that help your company — to go above and beyond,” Wellman says of previous studies on the topic.

“In this paper, we were interested in the idea that not only are you less likely to do good things, but could it also increase the likelihood that you’re going to do things that are actively harmful that otherwise, you would not do?”

Why moral standards shut down

The key is “moral disengagement,” a psychological theory that explains why people do bad things. “Typically, we have a moral regulatory system that, when we think about doing something wrong, kicks in and makes us feel guilty, and we have negative feelings and thoughts,” Wellman explains. “Those thoughts are enough to prevent us from going through with whatever we’re contemplating doing.”

But that process can be shut off in certain situations. “Things can happen to make us view actions that we typically see as wrong and bad as OK and acceptable,” he says.

Workers’ feeling of job insecurity could cause moral disengagement, allowing them to blame others and do things they normally wouldn’t. “If you feel insecure about your job, you’re more likely to view people who you might be harming with your deviant behavior as deserving because they somehow violated their agreement with you,” says Wellman, whose paper was published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The moral disengagement effect heightens when workers perceive themselves as having more and better employment options elsewhere. “Then you’re more likely to be offended and more likely to be deviant,” Wellman says. On the other hand, the researcher found that a good dynamic between a leader and a worker can lessen the likelihood of moral disengagement.

“If you feel that you have a healthy relationship with your immediate supervisor, and you believe that person treats you well and gives you responsibility, that makes the process less likely to occur,” he says. “It’s hard for them to say, ‘Everyone in this organization is out to get me.’”

The research team used surveys over several months on more than 600 workers from a Chinese manufacturer. “We didn’t see a ton of deviant behavior. It’s not like everyone who is insecure with the job runs around and does bad things,” he says. “But the rate is elevated.”

The questionnaires asked about interpersonal deviance — bullying, threatening, spreading rumors, or sabotaging others’ work — and behavior directed toward the company, such as taking supplies or abusing an expense account, and how frequently people engaged in each behavior, on a scale of one, never, to five, very often. “Most of the responses were in the two to three range. It’s not never, but it’s not super frequent,” Wellman says.

How to cope in today’s temporary workplace

The issues of workers feeling insecure about their jobs are relevant to the changing economy, says Wellman. “When we started this, 2008 was fresh in our minds. It’s no longer that you join an organization and can assume that 20 years from now you’ll be working at the same organization. The nature of work has changed, and work has become more temporary. People are encouraged to see themselves as free agents, so you’re not tied to a particular company.”

Wellman says that ensuring job security for all workers is unrealistic, but companies still can take action. “Coaching supervisors and managers about how to develop healthy and supportive relationships is critical,” he says. “Another more negative takeaway is that if you have someone who is very job insecure and you know they’re in high demand, that’s someone you want to keep a close eye on because that’s someone who is at greatest risk.”