10 Types of Counterproductive Work Behaviors


There’s no denying the fact that teamwork, good working relationships, and positive work environments are the key drivers of success in any organization. 

For the most part, employees perform their jobs to the best of their abilities, sometimes even going beyond and above. 

However, some employees demonstrate counterproductive work behaviors that may harm an organization’s performance.

Negative behaviors like ineffective performance, theft, and absenteeism can be too destructive to the organization’s goals. 

The worst part is that such behaviors negatively affect coworkers’ morale and are likely to increase turnover. 

In this post, we examine the various types of counterproductive behaviors, their causes and consequences, and how to eliminate them.

What Is Counterproductive Work Behavior (CWB)?

Counterproductive work behaviors can be described as employee actions that explicitly undermine or are intended to undermine the goals and objectives of an organization or its members. 

These behaviors are intentional and go beyond task performance. Often, their occurrence, form, or intensity is under the discretion of the culprit.

Basically, the primary goal of any business is to make profits, and this can take many forms. For example, if you offer services, you’d want your employees to deliver a high level of customer service.

But say an employee wastes time on their phone while customers are waiting to be served. 

That kind of counterproductive behavior will obviously affect the quality of service, and you may end up losing customers to your competitors.

Likewise, if an employee steals merchandise from their employer, they are doing so intentionally, most likely for personal gain. 

That person will be engaging in CWB, which shouldn’t be tolerated in a working environment.

Why Is it Important to Identify and Deal with CWB?

According to the FBI, 60 percent of employees would steal from their employers if they knew they wouldn’t get caught. 

Another survey by California Restaurant Association (CalRest.org) shows that 95 percent of all businesses encounter some form of theft.

Employee theft is costing U.S. businesses up to $50 billion every year, and the trend is rising at a rate of 15 percent annually.

As you can see, this is just one form of counterproductive work behavior with such detrimental effects. If not addressed, it can cause damages that an organization may not be able to recover from.

That is why it’s important not to overlook counterproductive behaviors in the workplace. 

Steps need to be taken to reduce instances of CWBs and minimize the risk of potential losses and damages occurring within the workplace.

Keep in mind that not all counterproductive workplace behaviors are conducted intentionally, but they are always conscious. 

Some workers annoy their coworkers on purpose, bully them, gossip intentionally. 

They do whatever they can to achieve their own goals without caring about the consequences for others.

Some employees engaging in CWB don’t intend to harm the organization. They are simply falling into the traps of counterproductive work behaviors – oblivious of the damage they are creating.

Types of Counterproductive Work Behaviors

Counterproductive workplace behaviors are those behaviors that go against the goals of an organization. 

These behaviors range in severity and can either occur at an interpersonal level or at an organizational level.

Examples of counterproductive work behavior are broad, but can be grouped into five major categories, based on the following characteristics:

  • Abuse against others
  • Theft
  • Sabotage
  • Withdrawal
  • Production deviance

1. Abuse Against Others

Abusing someone means mistreating them. It can consist of spreading rumors, teasing and humiliating coworkers, and unfair criticism. 

It can even be physical assault, like punching, stabbing or pushing.

Racial and sexual harassment could also be forms of abuse. These types of offensive behaviors can be part of a pattern of workplace bullying that targets one or more workers.

Bullying in the workplace is prevalent, with recent statistics showing that 94 percent out of 2081 employees reported they had been bullied. 

A 2015 American Working Conditions survey also shows that nearly one in five Americans report exposure to some form of hostile or threatening social environment at work.

Bullying can take various forms, and usually consists of progressive and repetitive negative antisocial behavior and psychological mistreatment of one worker against another.

2. Theft

Employee theft is one of the leading crimes that affect most businesses and it comes in many forms and at varying degrees. From cash larceny, time theft, data theft, and petty theft to fraudulent disbursements and embezzlements, theft can lead to substantial financial losses.

Employee theft can also entail stealing sensitive company information or intellectual property. Certain factors like unfair and frustrating working conditions can contribute to employee theft.

3. Sabotage

Sabotage is the behavior that intends to damage assets or engage in activities that impede the production of the company. 

Certain employees may coerce management for special consideration through tampering with equipment.

In some cases, an employee may intentionally damage an organization’s property, sell trading secrets to competitors, or ruin a company’s reputation. 

Examples of sabotage include dropping tools into machinery to damage the unit or driving a vehicle without motor oil until the engine is damaged.

4. Withdrawal

Employee withdrawal consists of those behaviors that reduce the amount of time an employee should be working. This includes lateness, leaving work early, taking longer breaks than allowed, and calling in sick when one isn’t ill.

5. Production Deviance

Sometimes, an employee can make an honest mistake or perform poorly, especially if they lack the skills for the job. However, when a job is performed incorrectly on purpose, then it amounts to production deviance.

It’s not uncommon for a staff member to engage in activities solely to spite their bosses or coworkers. For example, one can refuse to wear safety gear despite it being mandatory and clearly outlined in the safety rules.

Apart from these five, there are other types of counterproductive behavior in the workplace, such as:

6. Alcohol and Drug Use on the Job

Around $25.5 billion is spent due to lost productivity and absenteeism at work caused by drug abuse. Some common signs of substance abuse among employees include:

  • Excessive use of sick days
  • Unexplained, unauthorized, and frequent absences from work
  • Missed deadlines
  • Sloppy work
  • Excuses for incomplete work
  • Strained relationships at work
  • Sleeping on the job

On-the-job substance abuse can lead to an increase in workplace accidents and injuries. Not to mention declining levels of productivity.

7. Cyber Loafing and Social Loafing

Cyber loafing defines a situation where employees take advantage of the corporate internet for personal use while pretending to work. 

Imagine walking into a hotel reception desk to book a room, only to find the receptionist checking social media and chatting with friends, clearly ignoring you. That’s an example of counterproductive behavior.

Cyber loafing can lead to a drop in productivity and problems with data security. This can cost businesses billions through lost time and data breaches.

Social loafing, on the other hand, describes an aspect where individuals contribute less when they are part of a group. This usually leads to low team spirit, poor decision-making, and wastage of resources. As a result, the team ends up feeling demotivated and demoralized, and ultimately, productivity suffers.

8. Sexual Harassment

Research shows that 98 percent of all companies in the U.S. have formal sexual harassment policies in place. Yet, nearly 75 percent of sexual harassment claims in the workplace go unreported.

According to statistics by the Australian Human Rights Commission, 33 percent of workers experienced sexual harassment in the last five years. 

The survey also indicates that one in two people have been exposed to sexual harassment as a victim or bystander.

This unacceptable behavior in the professional world can lead to an increase in turnover, low morale, and employee absenteeism.

9. Knowledge Hiding, Hoarding, and Sabotage

Counterproductivity can also be manifested by people who purposefully hide their knowledge when their coworkers request it. 

Knowledge hoarding is the accumulation of knowledge by employees while concealing the fact that they possess this knowledge.

Knowledge sabotage, on the other hand, is a situation where a team member intentionally provides the wrong information, document, recommendation, or advice to a coworker. 

As we mentioned, teamwork promotes improved performance and collaboration. In its absence, productivity will suffer, and so will the company’s success.

10. Incivility

Disrespecting coworkers and rude behavior are forms of incivility in the workplace. Examples include harsh criticism, making sarcastic comments about colleagues, giving the silent treatment, and explosive anger.

These are behaviors that violate respectful social norms and are generally unaccepted within a work environment. 

Uncivil behavior can be caused by low employee morale, stress, or a hostile workplace, to mention a few.

You may have experienced incivility in the form of a coworker rolling their eyes, talking over you in a meeting, or making dismissive comments.

What Drives Counterproductive Workplace Behavior?

CWB in a work environment can arise due to several factors, including:

  • Individual personalities like being quick to anger
  • Toxic work environment
  • Lack of training
  • Lack of control over work
  • Poor or lack of management control
  • Breach of a psychological contract
  • Major organizational changes, like downsizing
  • Personal life changes
  • Unfair reward allocation or promotion
  • Impulsive employees who struggle to control themselves

Typically, workplace fairness can influence the behaviors, performance, and motivation levels of workers. 

Employees who are unfairly treated are more likely to engage in deviant behavior like damaging company property or being abusive (verbally or physically) toward coworkers.

How to Manage Counterproductive Work Behaviors

Issues will always arise in the workplace. However, when a particular employee develops a pattern of CWB, the management can help identify and reduce such occurrences.

Here are a few tips:

Choose Candidates Carefully

It starts with the recruitment and selection phase of new hires. During the selection phase, implement policies that will help you identify individuals who are less likely to engage in CWBs.

Employers are advised to use personality integrity tests to predict the likelihood of negative behaviors, such as absenteeism and disciplinary issues. 

When interviewing candidates, include specific character questions to see if the applicant’s answers align with the values of your company.

Empower Employees

Autonomy of work is one way to empower employees. Arbitrary and rigid procedures may lead to production deviance as your team members reject what they deem unfair and unnecessary.

Therefore, when formulating rules and policies, ensure they are reasonable. More importantly, allow your staff to contribute to the establishment of policies and procedures as this will positively affect their enactment.

Establish a Psychologically Safe Environment

As an employer, it’s your responsibility to model psychological safety behaviors in your organization. Your policies should consist of practices that encourage desired and discourage undesired behaviors.

You should strive to create a type of climate where employees feel safe to share ideas without fear of being mistreated or ridiculed by other team members.

Reduce Unnecessary Stress

Understandably, it can be difficult to manage remote workers. However, thanks to technology, there are various productivity tools that you can implement to monitor work progress and collaborate more effectively.

Such tools can help you set reasonable deadlines, view work performance, and set clear expectations – all without micromanaging your remote workforce

In addition, make sure employees have all the resources they need to facilitate their work. Of course, allow flexible schedules to empower them to juggle work demands more efficiently.

Support Your Employees

A staff member could be overworking and is on the verge of burnout. If you fail to listen to their concerns and instead force more work on them, you could be to blame if they develop CWBs.

Helping your employees deal with work-related and personal issues enables them to cope with work and life pressures. However, this can only happen if you’re approachable and your employees know they can always reach out whenever they have issues.

Act Immediately

Obviously, you have strict policies and rules in place to deter counterproductive work behaviors, such as sexual harassment and bullying. 

However, failure to act when such a wrong is committed encourages such behavior to continue.

The only way to stop negative behaviors in the workplace is to take immediate action. This will send a strong message to others about the kind of behavior that won’t be tolerated and expected disciplinary action.

Closing Thoughts

Keep in mind that counterproductive work behaviors are not always predictable. However, with good leadership and strong working relationships, you can minimize them.

As an employer, your goal is to always create a better working environment for your employees. Doing so will be reflected in their performance and productivity.

Counterproductive Workplace Behaviors Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What causes counterproductive workplace behaviors?

A: CWB can be caused by:

  • Stressful work environment
  • Lack of psychological safety
  • Lack of training
  • Rigid rules and procedures
  • Poor leadership

Q: How can counterproductive work behaviors be reduced?

A: CWB can be minimized in the workplace by:

  • Focusing on employee wellbeing
  • Allowing flexibility in work
  • Creating reasonable rules, policies, and procedures
  • Setting reasonable deadlines
  • Monitoring employees to prevent burnout

Q: What are the four major counterproductive workplace behaviors?

A: Counterproductive behaviors in the workplace can be categorized into four:

  • Production deviance – intentionally performing work duties incorrectly. It includes social and cyber loafing.
  • Property deviance – taking company property without authorization or damaging company assets. It includes sabotage, theft, and intentional blunders. 
  • Abuse – mistreating coworkers, physically or verbally. It includes racial or sexual harassment and bullying.
  • Withdrawal – failing to work as per the hours required by the company. It includes coming to work late, leaving early, or calling in sick when not ill.
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