When job insecurity leads to sabotage

November 9, 2016

New research by Professor Sue Ashford shows the rationalizations workers facing job loss can use to justify misbehavior, and how to prevent it.


It’s well-established that fear over job security leads to lower productivity and disengagement at work. When people are nervous and upset they check out.

But new research from Michigan Ross professor and faculty affiliate Sue Ashford shows that employees feeling job insecurity, in certain conditions, can take it even further when acting out their frustrations and anxiety. Instead of just slacking off they can do actual harm to the company — swiping supplies, fudging expense reports, bad-mouthing people, and other costly behaviors.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Ashford’s research shows the mental gymnastics disaffected employees can use to justify acting against the company. It also shows there are ways for employers to intervene and prevent the rationalizations.

Susan Ashford


Previous research has focused on the effect of job insecurity on individuals and its effect on employee motivation. Ashford and her co-authors thought there might be more to the story. They wanted to know whether insecurity could reach a level where it leads to behavior that’s directly harmful or costly to the company.“There are a number of things that happen at the top of an organization that cause job insecurity down the line and people, of course, get upset,” says Ashford, Michael & Susan Jandernoa Professor of Management and Organizations. “Sometimes, under the right conditions, this can lead to moral disengagement. This is a process of mental rationalization that makes it OK to do something we wouldn’t normally do. It’s re-framing an action in a way so that it no longer seems immoral.”

Ashford’s co-authors in the study are Guo-hua Huang of Hong Kong Baptist University, Ned Wellman of Arizona State’s Carey School of Business, Cynthia Lee of Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, and Li Wang of Tongji University in Shanghai.

Their research paper “Deviance and Exit: The Organizational Costs of Job Insecurity and Moral Disengagement,” studied employees of Chinese companies over several months to gauge their level of job insecurity and subsequent behavior. Employees from a state-owned enterprise during a time of reform — and uncertainty for workers — were surveyed, along with those from nine companies in the private sector.

It turns out that job uncertainty coupled with two other factors leads to higher chances of moral disengagement and bad acts — if an employee has:

  • A bad relationship with his or her immediate boss
  • Attractive alternative job prospects

“That extra psychological step to justify immoral behavior happens when these things converge,” says Ashford. “There’s job insecurity, you have a bad boss, and you see other job prospects. It can make you feel like you’re not valued and that’s how the rationalizations start. An implicit contract you had with the organization is broken and things you wouldn’t normally do can feel right.”

But there are concrete steps companies can take — especially during times of uncertainty — to prevent employees from disengaging.

First, make sure managers are considerate and reach out to team members during times of distress. Make sure they listen to concerns and show understanding for the stress they feel.

“When people feel they’re being mistreated they can justify a lot of behaviors,” Ashford says. “If you have a good relationship with your boss, even if you might be upset with the organization, it’s a lot harder to do that.”

Second, while you can’t control everyone’s outside job opportunities, you can make a special effort to reach out to people who seem to have good prospects. That’s a time to make people feel valued and find ways to make it worth their while to stay.

“Good managers know who on their team has good job prospects and those are also usually the people the company really needs,” she says. “It’s incumbent on you to show them that the grass isn’t always greener.”

This article was originally posted in Michigan Ross Thought in Action.