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Beware the Excluded Employee

Recent academic research provides some new -- and possibly troubling -- insights into what happens when employees feel excluded at work, such as acting in ways that may adversely affect an organization's bottom line.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014
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Sabotage. Harassment. Theft. Violence.

These are issues that no HR manager wishes to deal with but that unfortunately impact companies all too often. Recent headlines reflect the damage that can be done by disgruntled employees on a large scale.

But, even less-egregious impacts can have a negative effect on organizations and hinder their ability to achieve goals and thrive. Simply undermining the work of others can have significant negative impacts on organizations.

A recent report co-authored by Marie Mitchell, an associate professor of management at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business, suggests that, when employees feel disconnected from their work and undervalued, the resulting negative behaviors can potentially cripple organizations.

These behaviors initially stem from an effort to be included within their own workgroups, says Mitchell. To this end, employees may misguidedly engage in "cheating" behaviors to make themselves and their teams look better -- they may report better results, or higher progress, on projects that actually achieve their intended goals, for instance.

As those feelings of exclusion persist, though, the behaviors may become even more detrimental to the organization -- lying on expense forms, drinking on the job. A sense of "my boss has mistreated me, coworkers have mistreated me, so I'm going to get them back," may prevail. These notions, obviously, can lead to serious negative impacts for organizations.

The Univ. of Georgia research rings true, says Mark Royal, senior principal at Hay Group in Chicago. Royal recently worked on the firm's July 2014 report on the new rules of engagement, based on interviews with 300 heads of engagement from FTSE 250 and Fortune 500 companies, and is the co-author of The Enemy of Engagement. 

"Our research at Hay Group definitely highlights respectful treatment of employees as an important component of creating an engaging work environment," he says, adding that engagement is "about inspiring employees' desire to do and deliver more."

Organizations that hope to gain this level of commitment, he says, need to ensure that employees feel valued.

Engaged, valued, supported and praised employees tend not to act out because they often feel like it's 'our company,' as opposed to 'the company,' says Steve Albrecht, a San Diego-based training, coaching and management consulting firm that specializes in workplace-violence prevention and other high-risk HR-related issues.  

"The semantic difference is important," Albrecht says. "Employees who steal or hurt others often rationalize their behavior. They feel mistreated and they can convince themselves they're entitled to act out because they deserve it or the company deserves it for having wronged them by ignoring them." In his work, he says, he's often concerned about "injustice collectors" -- those whose favorite phrase is "it's not fair."

And a culture of exclusion can hurt both individuals and organizations.

"The sense of anger or helplessness that comes out of being excluded can result in acting out," says Ramani Durvasula, a Los-Angeles area-based licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at California State University, adding that such feelings may cause individuals to go into "survival" mode.

"If you are outed by the tribe," she says, "you will do what you need to [do to] survive," including lying and other deceptive behaviors, which, she says, "will be far more magnified in certain personality subtypes -- like narcissists and anti-socials."

There's somewhat of a double-edged sword at play here as well, she says. These types of personalities are also more likely to be excluded, which "may multiply the likelihood of unethical behavior."

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Clearly, it's important to recognize this potential and take steps to ensure that employees -- all employees -- feel included and valued.

Unfortunately, says Royal, the ability to achieve this engagement has become more challenging for organizations in an environment where multiple generations co-exist in the workplace and where companies are increasingly operating in a global environment.

The vastly different groups that exist in organizations today have diverse needs, perspectives and expectations. The challenge -- and opportunity -- for HR professionals is to ensure that all employees feel valued and understand the positive impact their contributions can have on the organization.

The results of this study, as well as the experiences of workplace experts suggests that employees exhibiting unethical behaviors in the workplace may be the lagging indicator of a bigger problem -- lack of engagement. That lack of engagement can be a leading indicator of downstream issues that can be minimized through a focus on minimizing feelings of disconnect.

HR leaders, says Royal, "need to create conditions where diverse people can work together effectively and, ideally, environments where they can learn from and appreciate one another."

The study points out the need for HR to be alert to the potential impacts of any particular individual, says Royal. But, he adds: "More broadly, I think HR needs to be thinking about approaches to create a climate of respect and inclusion."

While the stakes may be high, HR is in a unique position to defuse any potentially damaging employee behavior.

"Angry or entitled employees are often on a path that moves from deviant ideas to deviant actions," says Albrecht. But HR can "knock them off that path with empathic treatment and involvement in things they care about."

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