Even model employees can become negative and unproductive if their bosses are rude or mean-spirited or they feel put down or treated unfairly by their managers.
According to a new study by the University of Florida, gossiping, pilfering, backstabbing and long lunch breaks become the norm not just for workplace malcontents but even for exemplary employees who feel a lack of respect and recognition from above.
"When employees feel they're mistreated, they get even," said University of Florida management professor, Timothy Judge. "If they think their supervisor is nasty toward them, they will find a way to restore that perceived level of injustice.
"Employees have a tendency to respond to mistreatment, which means that trying to identify and weed out 'bad eggs' in the selection process is not enough," he said. "It's not that simple."
The findings are important because employers often act as if workers' attitudes are irrelevant and have no effect on how well they perform, he said.
Judge said he and a consultant asked human resource professionals several years ago about the value of job satisfaction and were amazed to hear such comments as "it's a foreign term around here" and "the subject is never brought up."
Many companies assume employees are motivated only by opportunities to earn more money or by the threat of losing their jobs, not realising that positive management-labour relations influence how long workers remain with an employer and the extent to which they engage in helping behaviours, he said.
"Training supervisors to treat employees with respect is not something that costs employers a lot of money, and it can produce real dividends."
Professor Judge's team looked at how people's moods influenced their work attitudes. Their immediate supervisors also completed an online questionnaire indicating how often the employee had done things such as steal property from work, litter the work environment, curse at co-workers or leave work without permission.
The results, published in the January issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, showed that all employees misbehaved under certain conditions, particularly if they were angry at work, disliked their jobs or believed their supervisors were unfair.
Most important was the amount of hostility employees felt, which was influenced by how they thought their supervisors treated them.
"If your supervisor is mean or rude to you, it increases your workplace deviance because it makes you angry and frustrated," Judge said.
Unfortunately, many human resource departments adopt police and practices designed to squelch bad behaviour rather than look for its root causes, he said.
"They may control one form of behaviour, but the problem is employees become deviant in other behaviours that are less observable and less easy to control," Judge said.
For example, if employees who find their supervisors unfair and mean-spirited retaliate by leaving work early and are disciplined for it, they might rebel by taking long lunch breaks, gossiping behind their bosses' backs or surfing the Internet during working hours, he said.
"How is the employer possibly going to observe and control all those behaviours?" he said. "That's not to say we're not responsible for own actions or shouldn't be punished, but employers need to look at whether they do things in a context to promote those behaviours."
Some business leaders may claim they cannot pay attention to how workers are treated if they are to keep a sharp eye on company profitability, Judge said, but one interest doesn't have to come at the expense of the other.
"You can be hard-nosed about business effectiveness and still be concerned with the attitudes of your employees," he said.
Sandra Robinson, chairwoman of the University of British Columbia business school's organizational behaviour and human resources division and an expert on employee-employer relations and workplace deviance, said the results "demonstrate that poor management can lead even the best employees to engage in dysfunctional and harmful behaviours at work."