Counterproductive Work Behavior: CWB-I

Counterproductive work behavior (CWB) is any behavior that is intended to harm an organization or its members. Common types of CWB include theft, sabotage, aggression toward others, and spreading rumors. Behavior on the part of employees that is intended to directly harm the organization, such as theft or sabotage, is commonly referred to as organizational deviance (CWB-O). On the other hand, behavior by employees that is intended to harm fellow employees, such as spreading rumors, harassment, violence, bullying, favoritism, gossip, blaming, and aggression, is referred to as interpersonal deviance (CWB-I). Researchers have used different terms to refer to such behaviors and to CWB in general, including abuse, aggression, bullying, deviance, retaliation, and revenge. On the surface, there are similarities between CWB-I and CWB-O, but empirical research has found that they are different.

Why Study CWB-I

One important reason to study CWB-I is the negative effect it has on employees. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that approximately 20 employees are murdered and 18,000 are assaulted at work each week in the United States. Although most of these incidents are the result of robberies, some of them, particularly the nonfatal ones, are the result of aggression in the workplace. Incidents of aggression can cost employees money in medical bills and time lost from the job. Furthermore, even employees who are not the direct victims of such attacks may feel unsafe at work. This can have direct implications on job performance and absenteeism. Instances of CWB-I such as bullying, interpersonal violence, and harassment (including sexual harassment) cost organizations millions of dollars each year in lost work time, reduced job effectiveness, and lawsuits.

Measuring CWB-I

A number of behavioral scales have been developed to measure the prevalence and seriousness of CWB. All are checklists that ask employees to indicate how often they have engaged in certain behaviors at work. One of the most popular scales is Sandra Robinson and Rebecca Bennett’s Typology of Deviant Workplace Behavior. This scale divides CWB along two continuums, organizational/personal (CWB-O/CWB-I) and minor/serious. The organizational/personal continuum refers to the target of the behavior—the organization or other individuals working in the organization. The minor/serious continuum refers to how severe the consequences are. This scale allows us to classify CWB within four quadrants: minor acts directed toward the organization, serious acts directed toward the organization, minor acts directed toward individuals, and serious acts directed toward individuals. Minor acts directed toward individuals might include showing favoritism, gossiping, blaming coworkers, and competing nonbeneficially. On the other hand, serious acts directed toward individuals might include verbal abuse, stealing from coworkers, and endangering coworkers. This scale and others similar to it allow us to investigate the antecedents of each type of CWB.

Antecedents Of CWB

Behavior is often considered a product of the person and the environment, and CWB-I is no exception: Employees commit CWB because of a complex web of personal and situational antecedents. Characteristics of the person, such as demographics and personality, and the work environment, such as the nature of work and relationships with others, combine to affect a person’s behavior.

Environmental Antecedents of CWB-I

One important model, the frustration aggression model of CWB, is based on the classic frustration aggression theory. This model of CWB states that when employees experience frustrating events at work, they have an emotional response to the events. This emotional response often leads employees to behave in a way in which they can vent these emotions. This behavior may take the form of CWB. Thus, affective responses mediate the relationship between frustration and CWB. This model also hypothesizes that certain person characteristics, such as a sense of control, anxiety, and anger, affect this hypothesized relationship. Specifically, individuals who do not believe that they have a great amount of control over their environment and feel a sufficient amount of anger report higher levels of frustration and, in turn, often commit more acts of CWB. Additionally, an employee’s perception of the likelihood of punishment is important. Employees who do not expect to be caught and punished are more likely to engage in CWB.

The job stress model of CWB builds on the frustration aggression model by focusing on different types of stressors rather than frustrating events. It hypothesizes that stressful job conditions such as work constraints (things at work that interfere with completing job tasks, such as faulty equipment or insufficient training) or work overload (too much to do at work) lead to an emotional reaction, such as anger or anxiety. These reactions, in turn, lead to job strain, which includes both physiological reactions (e.g., increased blood pressure) and behavior intended to cope with the stressors. Sometimes, these behaviors are attempts to overcome the stressors in a productive way, such as by seeking help from a coworker or supervisor when there is insufficient time to complete a task. Other times, the response is a form of CWB, which may not solve the problem but may make the person feel better by venting his or her anger or other feelings.

Researchers have found support for the idea that negative emotions such as anger, guilt, nervousness, and fear do, in fact, mediate the relationship between stressors (job constraints and interpersonal conflict) and CWB-I. Therefore, individuals who perceive job constraints or have conflicts with others respond to these situations with negative emotions and, in turn, commit more acts of CWB-I. The job stress model also hypothesizes that a number of other variables influence the relationship between stressors and CWB. Specifically, researchers have found that the personality characteristics of trait anger (the tendency to respond to situations with anger) and trait anxiety (the tendency to respond to situations with anxiety) interact with job stressors to predict CWB-I. This means that employees who are high on trait anger and trait anxiety are more likely to respond to job stressors with CWB-I.

Although employees’ stress levels and feelings of frustration play an important role in predicting whether they will commit acts of CWB, other researchers have focused on the role of justice. Justice theories of CWB state that employees who are not treated fairly are likely to engage in CWB. Researchers have identified two major types of justice, distributive and procedural. Distributive justice refers to employees’ perceptions of whether rewards and punishments are distributed equitably within the organization. For example, do all individuals in the same position with the same length of tenure receive the same pay? Procedural justice refers to whether individual members of an organization view the policies and procedures by which rewards are allocated as fair. Although it seems intuitive that injustice would predict CWB-O—employees who feel they have been treated unfairly would be likely to strike back at the organization—it has also been found to predict CWB-I. For example, the perceived level of procedural justice within an organization is related to the prevalence of CWB-I. Specifically, employees who perceive low levels of procedural justice within their organization tend to engage in more CWB against their fellow employees. An employee’s emotions play a role in this relationship as well. Specifically, negative emotions mediate the relationship between procedural justice and CWB-I. Therefore, when employees perceive that procedures within their organizations are unfair, they tend to respond to this perceived unfairness with negative emotions, committing more acts of CWB-I.

Justice theories and stress or frustration theories are not mutually exclusive. Rather, empirical research has found that there are links between these theories and that both play important roles in predicting CWB-I within organizations.

Personal Antecedents of CWB-I

Researchers have found a number of personal antecedents of CWB in general and of CWB-I in particular. For example, employees who are high in trait anger and trait anxiety, hold strong attitudes toward revenge, are impulsive (have little self-control), and have been exposed to aggressive cultures are more likely to behave aggressively toward others in the workplace. Additionally, self-control moderates the relationship between anger and workplace aggression, such that individuals who experience greater amounts of anger and have less self-control are more likely to commit CWB-I.

Another line of research has examined the targets of CWB-I. One study found that employees who had a history of aggression and consumed alcoholic beverages were more likely to display aggression toward their coworkers. Additionally, the amount of alcohol an employee consumes interacts with his or her perceptions of procedural justice to predict aggression against a coworker or a subordinate. Specifically, employees who perceive low levels of procedural justice and consume alcohol are most likely to commit acts of aggression against their coworkers and subordinates.

Ways To Reduce CWB-I At Work

Research has identified a number of antecedents of CWB, and it seems logical that paying careful attention to these antecedents might reduce to the amount of CWB-I within organizations. One particularly important antecedent is procedural justice. Organizations should pay careful attention to the procedures they use to distribute rewards, such as pay increases, and ensure that policies affecting employees are seen as fair. This does not mean that every employee must receive the same salary or rewards but that, where there are differences, the reasons are based on a process that is considered fair. For example, pay based on sales commissions will typically result in pay differences, but employees often accept such systems as being fair. Maintaining procedural justice can help reduce the prevalence of CWB-I within an organization.

A second area of concern is workplace stressors, which can lead to CWB-I. For example, organizations should take steps to minimize organizational constraints by ensuring that employees have the materials and support they need to complete their jobs. This not only will result in better job performance (because constraints interfere with an employee’s ability to do the job effectively) but also may reduce CWB-I. Furthermore, organizations should do what they can to minimize interpersonal conflict among employees. This can be accomplished by implementing policies and procedures concerning appropriate professional conduct at work and by training supervisors to handle and mediate conflicts between and with subordinates.

Although organizations should focus on preventing current employees from engaging in CWB-I, it is also important to consider CWB-I when hiring new employees, as some individuals are more likely to commit CWB-I than others. Specifically, individuals who have a record of poor or violent relationships with other employees and supervisors in the past and have poor self-control are more likely to commit acts of CWB-I. Additionally, empirical research suggests that certain types of screening tools, such as integrity tests, can be useful in predicting whether potential employees are likely to engage in CWB while on the job. Research has found such tests useful for predicting CWB overall, not just CWB-I.


CWB-I is defined as behavior by an employee that is intended to harm his or her fellow employees. Examples of CWB-I include spreading rumors, harassment, violence, bullying, favoritism, gossip, blaming, and aggression. It is important to study CWB-I because it negatively affects a large number of employees, as well as organizations, each year. The literature has identified a number of situational antecedents of CWB, including justice and job stress-ors. Additionally, a number of personal antecedents, such as self-control, trait anger, and trait anxiety, predict CWB-I.


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