Counterproductive Work Behavior: CWB-O

Counterproductive work behavior (CWB) refers to voluntary work behaviors that hurt or are intended to hurt the organization or its members. It includes acts with potential harm, such as theft, physical aggression, and sloppy work. These behaviors are voluntary in the sense that they go beyond task performance, and their occurrence, form, and intensity is under the discretion of the individual. Some CWB is directed toward individuals in the organization (interpersonal deviance, or CWB-I); such behavior includes acts such as verbal assault, aggression, and spreading rumors. On the other hand, some CWB is directed toward the organization (organizational deviance, or CWB-O); such behavior includes acts such as theft, sabotage, work slowdowns, and withdrawal.

Like other types of harmful behaviors, CWB-O has drawn considerable attention among academicians and practitioners because it has many negative consequences for organizations and employees. Theft alone costs American organizations $10 billion to $200 billion annually. Additional losses are incurred from damage caused by sabotage and lower productivity (taking long breaks, wasting resources), which is difficult to quantify in dollar terms. Furthermore, CWB-O leads to an unsafe and insecure environment, which has adverse effects on the performance and well-being of the employees. Continuous occurrence of CWB-O may create a culture in which CWB-O can be more easily justified and committed more often by far more individuals.

Main Categories Of CWB

In terms of counterproductive work behavior, employees have a repertoire of acts to inflict harm. Although there are many ways to categorize CWB, the most popular taxonomy categorizes behaviors according to their target. Threats and abuse of others target people (e.g., coworkers), whereas work avoidance and sabotage target the organization. Overt acts such as theft may target both.

Sandra Robinson and Rebecca Bennett’s Typology of Deviant Workplace Behavior classifies CWB, referred to as deviance, into two dimensions— interpersonal/organizational and minor/serious— producing four types of behaviors. Both interpersonal and organizational deviance may vary according the severity of the acts. Production deviance concerns minor acts of violating organizational norms regarding the quantity and quality of work performed (e.g., being late or putting in little effort). Property deviance concerns serious acts of acquiring or damaging property belonging to one’s employer (e.g., theft or sabotage). Behaviors may include active or passive acts. Active behavior is immediately directed at a target (e.g., using a hammer to smash a piece of equipment). However, such overt harmful behaviors are visible and likely to be punished. Therefore, passive and indirect behavior (e.g., avoiding work) is more common.

Antecedents Of CWB

Like any human behavior, CWB is an outcome of the interaction between the environment and the characteristics of the individual. Both environmental and personal factors contribute to the occurrence and type of CWB. In most voluntary work behavior theories, an undesirable condition or event is present in the environment (e.g., injustice). People engage in cognitive appraisal and evaluate the situation. Then, they decide how to respond and may commit some type of CWB (e.g., theft or doing the work incorrectly). Personality plays a role in the way people perceive the environment and how they react. Therefore, the combination of certain environmental conditions and certain personality characteristics increases the likelihood of CWB.

Environmental Antecedents of CWB-O

The workplace environment consists of both the physical environment and the social or organizational context. In general, negative and stressful experiences, such as abusive supervision, problematic leadership, or incivility, lead to CWB-O.

One important antecedent of CWB-O is organizational constraints, or conditions that inhibit task performance (e.g., insufficient information or insufficient tools). When employees perceive constraints and cannot perform their jobs, they sometimes react by engaging in minor forms of CWB-O, sabotage, and withdrawal.

Negative situations may arise from the roles that employees play within the organization. Role conflict involves simultaneous demands that interfere with one another and make it difficult to carry out the job. Role ambiguity refers to the extent to which an individual is uncertain about what is expected from him or her. Both role stressors are related to tension and anxiety and increase the likelihood of CWB-O (e.g., sabotage and theft).

Justice, or the perceived fairness in the organization, is one of the most important antecedents of CWB-O. Employees pay attention to how fairly rewards and punishments are distributed (distributive justice), how fair the policies and procedures are (procedural justice), and how well they are treated by their supervisors and management (interactional justice). When employees feel that they are being treated unfairly by the organization, they engage in more CWB-O. Moreover, the failure to explain a perceived injustice leads to an increase in theft and withdrawal.

Disagreements that employees have with other individuals in the organization are also associated with CWB-O. Employees may experience interpersonal conflict with their supervisors or with their coworkers. Although conflict seems to be interpersonal in nature, research has shown that conflict leads consistently to CWB against the organization.

Control is an important factor influencing CWB-O because it is related to one’s ability to cope with threats and demands from the environment. When people perceive control over situations, they are less likely to engage in destructive acts and behave constructively. Autonomy refers to the control one has over decisions regarding work methods and scheduling. Employees who have more autonomy perceive more control and engage in fewer organizational forms of CWB.

When choosing their acts (e.g., CWB-O), employees also consider the psychological contract, which is the employee’s belief that certain commitments and obligations exist between him or her and the employer. Such a contract concerns what is expected of the employee (e.g., attendance) and what the employee receives in return (e.g., salary). Any violation of the psychological contract by the organization is detrimental to the relationship between the employee and the organization and increases the likelihood of CWB-O.

Personal Antecedents of CWB-O

Individual characteristics affect the way employees behave in the workplace. In general, personal factors that increase or fail to diminish the effects of negative experiences may lead to CWB-O. The relevant personality characteristics are linked to experiencing emotions or to control of the environment or the self.

One important antecedent of CWB-O is trait anger, which refers to the dispositional tendency to perceive a wide range of situations as anger provoking. Employees who are high in trait anger react to undesirable situations more impulsively and with a greater degree of anger. As a result, they are more likely to commit destructive acts and CWB-O.

Some individuals have a tendency to experience negative emotions across time and situations (negative affectivity). To the extent that employees perceive situations in the workplace in negative terms, they are more likely to engage in CWB-O. Additionally, individuals who are high in trait anxiety tend to perceive stressful situations as dangerous and threatening, so they have more frequent and intense negative emotional responses. Therefore, trait anxiety is associated with high levels of CWB-O

Organization deviance may result from personality dispositions related to the lack or insufficiency of control. Self-control is the propensity to avoid acts whose long-term costs exceed momentary gains. People who have self-control are more successful in dealing with negative events in their environment. They can fine-tune their responses and avoid impulsive harmful behaviors. Therefore, the lack of self-control leads to CWB-O.

Another antecedent of CWB-O is locus of control, which refers to the tendency to attribute the causes of outcomes to either internal factors (the person) or external factors (the environment). People who believe that events happen because of factors that are outside their control are more likely to blame others (e.g., the organization) and commit CWB-O.

CWB Models And Theories

In the CWB literature, there are different explanations and models explaining why people engage in CWB-O. At the core of most models, emotions and cognitions play important roles. In other words, the likelihood, the extent, and the form of CWB-O are influenced by how people feel and what people think. There are some overlaps between models, but each taps into different aspects of human nature and the environment.

According to the emotion-centered stress model, employees have to deal with many workplace stress-ors, which involve stressful events or situations (constraints on performance, role stressors, conflict, and injustice). When employees face stressors, they experience negative emotions (e.g., anxiety or hostility) and are more likely to engage in harmful behaviors, including CWB-O. The central role of emotions is to mediate the effects of environmental conditions on behavior. Job stressors (e.g., unfair treatment by the organization) lead to negative emotions (e.g., anger), which then result in some type of CWB.

The frustration-aggression model holds that in the workplace, certain undesirable events (e.g., constraints) interfere with employees’ goal attainment and therefore lead to frustration. When employees are frustrated, they try to overcome their negative feelings by committing some form of aggression, which may be directed toward people (CWB-I), inanimate objects, or the organization (CWB-O). When the frustration is caused by some organizational factor, people are likely to direct their CWB toward the organization. Moreover, frustration leads to more harmful behaviors when people believe punishment is unlikely.

Deviance in the organizational setting refers to violations of organizational norms, which exist for the well-being of the organization and are prescribed by formal and informal organizational policies and rules. According to Sandra Robinson and Rebecca Bennett’s deviant behavior model, deviant employees either lack the motivation to conform to the expectations of the social context or become motivated to violate those expectations. Thus, CWB-O is considered a form of organizational deviance, which involves the violation of norms regarding the relationship between the employee and the organization. Production deviance involves the violation of corporate norms related to the creation of a product or provision of a service (e.g., putting in low effort), whereas property deviance violates norms related to maintaining and protecting property (e.g., sabotage or theft).

People perceive fairness when there is a balance between their contributions and the rewards they receive. According to Daniel Skarlicki and Robert Folger’s organizational justice theory, people commit CWB to retaliate for an injustice by the organization. An employee who attributes responsibility for the injustice to the organization may engage in harmful behaviors to compensate for the wrongdoing and to “even the score.” Although employees may retaliate when they perceive themselves as victims of unfair treatment by the organization, they also may react when they perceive others are being unfairly treated. In either case, the employee who sees injustice may experience anger and engage in CWB-O to retaliate against the organization.

Prevention And Control Of CWB-O

Our knowledge of the antecedents of CWB-O has led some researchers to develop practical solutions to reduce it. Integrity tests, personnel screening, and preemployment testing can be used to identify applicants who are less prone to CWB, more conscientious, and self-controlled and therefore are less likely to engage in CWB. Organizations can avoid hiring applicants who have a history of aggression and show a personality pattern that is vulnerable to deviant behavior (high trait anger, negative affectivity, external locus of control, and lack of self-control).

Because injustice is one of the key antecedents of CWB-O, an organizational climate based on fair treatment is crucial. Employees should be treated with trust, respect, and dignity. In addition to providing adequate compensation, organizations should attempt to create and implement fair policies, rules, and procedures. Support for employees, employee assistance programs, and training in conflict management skills are also helpful. Furthermore, the organization should take steps to reduce job stress. Conditions and events (e.g., organizational change or salary cuts) that lead to negative cognitive and emotional responses should be taken into account in managerial actions. Moreover, such actions should be communicated to employees properly so that they understand the rationale and reasons for them. Other ways of reducing CWB-O include setting an example for employees, presenting role models, communicating a policy concerning counterproductive behavior, and consistently and fairly punishing unacceptable behavior (e.g., theft).


Counterproductive work behaviors against the organization are voluntary acts that hurt the organization, such as theft, sabotage, or doing a job incorrectly. The presence of CWB-O has negative consequences for organizations (e.g., financial loss from theft) and for employees (e.g., poor well-being). Most research has focused on determining who is likely to engage in CWB and under which conditions. Such behavior is believed to result from a combination of personality factors (e.g., trait anger, trait anxiety, and low self-control) and environmental factors (e.g., constraints, injustice, and conflict).


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