Deep psychological contracts formed between employees and employers can result in acts of revenge, ‘crimes of obedience’

Near one end of the spectrum are the Arthur Andersen employees who, out of loyalty to their employer and at great personal risk, destroyed files to cover up corporate scandal. At the other end is the disgruntled worker at another company who surreptitiously spread poison-ivy sap on executive-washroom toilet seats. “A clear signal to management,” says Judi McLean Parks, Ph.D., professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis, “that something is wrong.” McLean Parks’ research at the Olin School of Business finds that both forms of organizational behavior grow from the same seed of organizational identity.

McLean Parks, the Reuben C. and Anne Carpenter Taylor Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Washington University School of Business, studies both forms of organizational behavior. And understanding both — crimes of obedience and acts of revenge — can help employers and employees better manage emotionally charged relationships in a changing workplace.

“It’s vital for an organization to manage how it communicates its identities to various constituencies — the public, other companies or employees,” says McLean Parks. Done deftly, this communication allows an organization — whether a business or other institution — to capitalize on its strengths and further its goals. But when ineptly managed, it can cause confusion, low levels of customer and employee loyalty, vilification by the public, and even violence in the workplace, she says.

An important part of her research has centered on the various ways, or identity frames, through which those organizational identities are communicated and interpreted, as evidenced in her recent paper, “Identity Creation: How Organizational Identity Is Created Through Dynamic Communication Processes,” co-authored with Faye L. Smith of Emporia State University. But she’s also concerned with how those organizational identities impact employee behavior.

Judi McLean Parks
Judi McLean Parks

“Where you work is important in the United States,” says McLean Parks. “It helps us define ourselves. Employees identify with employers and form psychological contracts with them — contracts that are always in the eye of the beholder.”

When employees perceive that contract upheld, they often display loyalty to the employer, exceed assigned duties and act in a way beneficial to the organization. But when the employee believes that contract has been broken, it’s a far different story.

“Because of the strong sense of identity many Americans have toward their organization, they react strongly when they feel violated,” says McLean Parks. It can lead to behavior detrimental to the organization, such as shirking, theft, or dysfunctional relations with customers.

Thanks to profound changes in the American workplace, that employer/employee relationship may never be the same, says McLean Parks. Her paper “Till Death Us Do Part: Changing Work Relationships in the 1990s,” written with Deborah L. Kidder of the University of Minnesota, examines the costs of those changes — to both the organization and employees.

“At one time it was a long-term partnership, with more invested in it. But over the last several years, employers have been chipping away at it,” she says. “To cut costs, employers have laid-off people. The remaining people are often overworked, insecure about their futures and disaffected — which lowers productivity.”

But there are other, less obvious ways for an employer to undermine that psychological contract — withdrawing privileges or access to information, or acting in a way that betrays employee expectations.

“If an employee has been told the company had a social conscience and then discovers that it’s dumping toxic waste, the employee can feel a sense of violation,” she says.

That can lead the employee to try to even the score. Generally powerless to do so in any acceptable way, the employee may turn to retribution, McLean Parks noted in her 1997 paper, “The Fourth Arm of Justice: The Art and Science of Revenge.”

“But retribution or revenge in the workplace is not necessarily a bad thing,” she says. “If a company is losing hamburger out the back door, it can put a bigger lock on the freezer. Or it can use that information to find out what’s making employees angry.”

Which means that employers need to watch not only what they do but also how employees view it.

“Perception drives employee behavior. Whether employees get angry or steal depends on their perception of how they’re being treated,” says McLean Parks.

“Management has to manage employee expectations, to make sure there are no misperceptions. And in my experience there is no such thing as redundant communication.

“Also, companies must realize the importance of their employees identifying with them. If they’re a scum company, employees will behave correspondingly. Managers need to watch the image the company presents and its corporate personality,” she says.

But emotionally charged employee identification with an organizational role can also lead to the opposite of acts of revenge — what McLean Parks calls crimes of obedience.

The loyal and overzealous Arthur Andersen file burners and employees, such as toxic-waste dumpers who violate environmental or other laws, put themselves at great risk in obeying unethical orders or complying to corrupt norms. But most crimes of obedience are not necessarily illegal, says McLean Parks, yet still may be potentially damaging to the employee.

“Employees may create fake advertising, alter research findings, or fudge billing records,” she says. “Employees don’t stop to think of the consequences. It’s not good for self-esteem, and they make themselves vulnerable as potential scapegoats. And at times they’re undertaking a high societal risk.

“But the organization expects it. It may well be standard operating procedure, a norm the employee can’t break out of without getting pressure.”

That pressure can be subtle or more direct — like “binging,” says McLean Parks. That practice occurs in factories where a worker exceeds the normal output and co-workers “bing” the overly conscientious worker with a jab on the arm as they pass, to help bring him back into line.

But generally workers yield mindlessly to dubious behavioral norms.

“People commit crimes of obedience often without realizing they don’t have to,” she says.

But McLean Parks believes she knows what makes employees susceptible to performing crimes of obedience.

“It’s theoretical research thus far, but I believe a strong predictor is the degree to which a person identifies with an organization,” she says.

To test that theory, she’s now in the process of collecting data in a confidential survey of employees in a large organization.

Those findings will help answer some of the darker questions she continues to ask and give researchers and managers alike a deeper understanding of the how and why behind dysfunctional organizational behavior.