Organisations could be turning employees into saboteurs without realising it, research says. Here are some steps to identify and rectify the problem.
When employees become disillusioned with their employer, they can psychologically detach from the organisation’s mission, which increases the risk of them becoming an insider threat, say researchers from the University of Glasgow and Coventry University. In their paper Professor Rosalind Searle and Dr Charis Rice identify four different employee types that could be harmful to an organisation.
These employees might have previously been some of the best and most loyal but an organisational transition or an individual change – such as having their responsibilities shifted – can leave them feeling disgruntled. In both circumstances, an employee’s commitment levels drop and they begin to view employers through a distrusting lense.
What turns a loyal employee into a saboteur?
The bad behaviour of these “saboteurs” can be small, such as general time wasting or out of character rudeness. Or it can be more catastrophic, such as leaking confidential information to curious competitors.
Like the behaviour itself, the context in which it arises varies. Rice and Searle listed unpredictable work environments, inadequate communication, inconsistent leadership, and unfair changes or processes as some of the main causes for bad behaviour.
Perhaps the most obvious reason is being fired. A famous example, that sends shivers down the spines of leaders worldwide, is the 1996 “time bomber”. Timothy Lloyd, a former employee of Omega Engineering, left his employers one hell of a farewell gift, activating what’s being referred to as a “digital bomb” that deleted all of the company’s files, resulting in $10 million of lost sales and contracts.
Even if you’re furious about being let go, this behaviour is not advisable as Lloyd was sentenced to 41 months in jail.
Who are these people?
Different people have different reactions to change, depending on their adaptability and personal circumstances. Some employees are able to embrace any change, moving forward without rocking the boat, but that’s not true of everybody. Rice and Searle have placed those susceptible to poor behaviour during transition periods into four different categories:
These are people who occasionally slip up as a reaction to certain workplace changes. Perhaps they’re disgruntled by a new workplace policy and react by being rude to their manager, disrupting an important meeting or taking ‘on-site documents only’ home.
While this behaviour may be fleeting, and is only occasional, it’s important to not treat them lightly as even small slip ups can have larger negative effects.
According to Rice and Searle, these are employees that “carry out [poor] behaviour through an incapacity to self-regulate their actions”. They break the rules, but they do so unintentionally.
Maybe they accidentally send an email to someone they shouldn’t have or post about work sensitive issues on social media. Omitters usually require other employees to help them clean up their mess in order to reduce their insider threat risk.
You tend to encounter ommitters more during a poorly managed transition, where employees lose their emotional buy-in. Ommitters become withdrawn and lose their attention to detail and commitment to success.
Unlike a slipper or an omitter, this group set out to intentionally damage an organisation – however, they do so with a series of small harmful acts over a period of time. They’re playing a long game.
“Over time, if unchallenged and uncorrected, these behaviours can cause problems for colleagues and create additional costs and risks for their employers,” say Rice and Searle.
The Serial Transgressors
These employees are the type to blatantly engage with counterproductive behaviour in order to intentionally undermine authority figures and run amok throughout an organisation. Serial transgressors are the riskiest of the bunch.
Rice and Searle say that this group can also become a higher risk than even they originally intended due to the long-term stress implications of this state.
“They are already likely to be isolated from their work group, which can seriously impede efforts to discern the real level of threat they pose. They distrust those in authority whom they are likely to regard as responsible for squashing or sabotaging their cherished plans,” say Rice and Searle.
It’s not that they’re acting out for the sake of it. They feel they are justified in doing so. That’s the difference between an employee who is problematic versus someone who is conditioned into feeling cynical or vengeful.
What’s the remedy?
HRM has previously provided tips for dealing with difficult employees during a workplace investigation and managing challenging top performers, but how should employers tackle troublesome employees during transition periods at work?
Rice and Searle created a series of resources to advise employers on how to manage organisation transitions and reduce their risk of fostering aggrieved employees. Here is a summary of their key points:
- HR procedures should be fair and consistent during transition periods.
- Ensure employees feel protected, rather than punished, for calling out bad behaviour.
- Give employee’s space to air their concerns and really listen.
- Be transparent in your communication of the changes (don’t sugar coat).
- Ensure all managers embrace important changes and lead by example.
- Revisit the changes and adapt anything that’s not working. To do this, you’ll need to check in with both individuals and teams.
“There are many examples of high-profile companies which have made the headlines following employee sabotage,” says Rice.
A recent one is Elon Musk’s accusations that a Tesla employee had tampered with internal operations and shared company information with “unknown third parties” during a mass layoff period for the tech behemoth.
“It is vitally important to understand how these situations come about: the types of employee who might resort to these behaviours; why it happens and how managers’ actions can prevent this happening,” says Rice.
“We found examples of team and managerial distrust that led to employees withdrawing their effort from organisations and in some cases even bred revenge behaviour.”
Searle added: “Critically, our results showed that such outcomes were often an unforeseen consequence of an existing ‘need to know’ security culture and in part, the perceived heavy-handedness of HR and security teams with whom staff felt reluctant to share concerns.”
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