Organizational retaliatory behavior refers to actions taken by disgruntled employees in response to perceived injustice at work. Organizational retaliatory behavior can take many forms, including withholding effort or citizenship behaviors, intentionally performing tasks incorrectly, purposely damaging equipment, taking supplies or materials, taking longer breaks than allowed, calling in sick, spreading rumors about people at work, refusing to help others at work, failing to report problems so they get worse, attending to personal matters while at work, purposely wasting time, sabotaging projects, and ignoring or verbally abusing people at work.
Although many behaviors that are classified as organizational retaliatory behavior may also be called counterproductive work behavior, workplace aggression, or employee deviance, organizational retaliatory behavior is distinct in at least two ways. First, organizational retaliatory behavior places a stronger emphasis on the situational context in which the behavior occurs as the main catalyst. In contrast, employee deviance implies an underlying dispositional tendency to engage in negative behaviors at work. Employee deviance also refers to behavior that violates organizational norms regarding what is proper and acceptable behavior. Therefore, to the extent that retaliation is common and accepted behavior in the workplace, it may or may not be considered deviant.
Second, organizational retaliatory behavior refers specifically to behaviors that are provoked by unfair treatment at work and implies a singular motive: to restore justice or equity; counterproductive work behavior and workplace aggression take a broader perspective regarding the motives or intentions driving behavior. For example, counterproductive work behavior is defined as behavior that has the potential to harm an organization or individuals at work; and while it may be driven by malicious intent, employees may perform counterproductive work behaviors as a means of coping with job stress, as a reaction to unfairness, or out of ignorance or boredom. Workplace aggression, however, refers to behavior by employees that intends to harm; and the general aggression literature has identified two primary motives behind aggression. Aggression can be either reactive or hot, such as when an angry employee yells at a coworker, or aggression may be proactive or cold, such as when an employee spreads damaging rumors about a coworker to better personal chances of receiving a promotion. Thus although all organizational retaliatory behavior is considered workplace aggression and all workplace aggression is considered counterproductive work behavior, not all counterproductive work behavior or workplace aggression is considered organizational retaliatory behavior.
Organizational retaliatory behavior can be understood using justice theory and social exchange theory. Each of these frameworks is briefly discussed in the following text.
Justice Theory and Organizational Retaliatory Behavior
Justice theory is the theoretical framework most commonly associated with organizational retaliatory behaviors. Organizational justice refers to the perceived fairness of interactions between individuals and organizations. Researchers have discussed justice in terms of its three forms:
- Distributive justice: the perceived fairness of outcomes received from an employer
- Procedural justice: the perceived fairness of the processes and decisions that determine organizational outcomes independent of the fairness of the actual outcomes received
- Interactional justice: the quality of interpersonal treatment received during the enactment of organizational procedures
According to justice theory, when employees experience some form of injustice or inequity, they will be motivated to restore justice. Any effort to balance the justice equation would be considered a retaliatory behavior.
All three forms of justice have been shown to independently contribute to employee retaliation. However, procedural and interactional justice may be more important determinants of retaliatory behavior than distributive justice. Studies have shown that the negative effects of low distributive justice can be mitigated by the presence of high levels of either procedural or interactional justice. In other words, employees are less likely to retaliate for receiving fewer rewards if the procedures that determine those rewards are fair and if the employees are treated with dignity and respect throughout the reward distribution process. Employees, therefore, appear to place greater emphasis on the fairness of the procedures and how well they are treated as individuals than on the absolute level of outcomes received when deciding to retaliate.
Because organizational retaliatory behaviors are assumed to be motivated by an employee’s desire to restore justice, retaliatory behavior is more easily legitimized in the eyes of the performer: “I had to do something. I couldn’t let him just get away with treating me like that.” Hence a valuable contribution of this construct is the recognition that employees may perform these behaviors out of a desire to punish the offender and correct some wrong. Also, unlike counterproductive work behavior, workplace aggression, or employee deviance, which assume that the consequences of these behaviors are negative, no such assumption is made regarding the outcome of retaliatory behavior. In fact, it is possible that retaliation may lead to positive outcomes because there are two ways to balance the justice equation. For example, if employees feel that their supervisor is treating them unfairly, they can balance the equation by treating their supervisor unfairly in return, such as delaying actions on projects that are important to that supervisor; or they may balance the equation by demanding fairer treatment from their supervisor by confronting the supervisor directly or by complaining to a higher-level manager. Although both actions result in a more balanced justice equation, the former case has negative implications for the supervisor and organization, and possibly for the employee to the extent that job performance is affected, whereas the latter case may lead to positive outcomes if the supervisor changes behavior to treat the employee more fairly. Therefore, an important contribution of the organizational retaliatory behavior construct is that it recognizes the possibility that seemingly negative behaviors may be performed as a means to a more productive or prosocial end.
Social Exchange Theory and Organizational Retaliatory Behavior
Organizational retaliatory behavior can also be understood within the framework of social exchange theory. According to social exchange theory, employees define their relationships with their organization and their supervisor in terms of social exchange using the norm of reciprocity. Thus employees engage in retaliatory behaviors to reciprocate unfavorable treatment received from the supervisor or organization. If employees believe the organization is looking out for their best interests or is fairly providing them with valued rewards, they will respond in kind by performing positive actions such as organizational citizenship behaviors. However, if employees believe the organization or supervisor is withholding rewards or punishing them unfairly, they will reciprocate by reducing actions that benefit the organization or by performing actions that directly injure the organization.
A related theory, leader-member exchange theory, is also useful for understanding employee retaliatory behavior, particularly when that behavior is directed toward a leader. According to leader-member exchange theory, individual, group, and organizational outcomes are affected by the quality of the relationships that employees have with their leaders. Employees who have a high-quality relationship with their leaders are more trusted by their leaders and are given more autonomy and decision-making input. Those employees are more likely to be high performers and exhibit more citizenship behaviors as well. However, employees who have low-quality exchange relationships with their leaders are managed more closely and provided with less support from their leaders, and they are more likely to perform retaliatory behaviors in return.
Although justice theory and social exchange theory take slightly different approaches to understanding retaliation, both emphasize the importance of the relationship that employees have with their organizations and the people in them as antecedents to the performance of retaliatory behaviors.
Prevention of Organizational Retaliatory Behavior
Because organizational retaliatory behaviors refer specifically to actions taken by employees in response to some perceived injustice or inequity, to prevent retaliatory behaviors organizations should identify ways to increase employee perceptions of fairness at work. According to both justice and social exchange theories, the quality of employees’ relationships with their supervisors is an important determinant of retaliatory behavior; therefore organizations should carefully select managers and screen out those with a history of interpersonal conflict or other unethical behavior. Furthermore, organizations should make managers aware of the importance of treating all employees fairly and provide training to managers to equip them with the knowledge and skills necessary to provide employees with fair and just treatment, including suppressing personal biases, basing decisions on accurate information, administering policies consistently, giving employees a voice in the decision-making process, allowing for corrections to be made, behaving ethically, being truthful and honest with employees, and respectfully interacting with employees. Additionally, organizational policies and procedures should be reviewed and revised if necessary so they reflect the organization’s commitment to fair treatment of all employees. If employees have confidence in their ability to redress a perceived injustice using formal channels, they may feel less of a need to perform retaliatory behaviors or otherwise take matters into their own hands.
On the employee side, there is some evidence suggesting that individual differences in personality are related to the performance of retaliatory behaviors. At least one study found that individuals high in negative affectivity or low on agreeableness were more likely to perform retaliatory behaviors when they experienced low justice. Thus organizations should modify their selection and screening processes to identify individuals with a greater propensity to perform retaliatory behaviors or who have a history of performing retaliatory behaviors in past jobs.
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