Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 265
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Mistreatment at Work

Research refutes a common fear of using a grievance system.

Imagine that you're a woman in your mid 40's and you work in the admissions office of a major university. You've been in your present job for 8 years, but your supervisor has only been in her position for a year. One day you're at your desk with co-workers nearby. Students and parents are crowded in the waiting area beyond the counter. Your supervisor walks to your desk, interrupts your conversation with a co-worker, and lays a piece of paper on top of your work. She points to a line at the bottom and says: "Is this right?"

You examine the document and say, "Yes, it is."

She replies, "I can't believe this," and with her voice rising, she adds, "You're not being honest with me."

You are speechless and deeply embarrassed. A silence settles over the busy office as people watch to see what will happen next. Your supervisor pauses, apparently expecting some further conversation, but soon, she picks up the piece of paper and walks away.

If you were this woman, and your supervisor treated you in this way, what would you do?

Here are some choices:

You could file a grievance (assuming a grievance system existed). You could shrug off the incident and go on as though nothing had happened. You could confront this supervisor and risk a shouting match. You could quit and find a job with another employer. Finally, you could nurse your anger and take opportunities to get even: you could slow down your work, take more sick leave, lose important documents, spread rumors, and exaggerate your supervisor's flaws.

Of these choices, which would you select?

Whenever people work together, there is a danger that a few people will feel mistreated. Feeling mistreated is a dangerous perception because it often leads to destructive actions, like the ones listed above. Grievance systems are created to address this need, but there's a problem. When you were imagining your response in the situation posed above, did it occur to you that filing a grievance would cause more trouble that it would solve? That's a common belief, and that's the problem.

Wendy Boswell, from Texas A&M University, is interested in grievance systems. In a recent article, she recognized that research generally supports employees' fears. Past studies have shown that people who file grievances experience higher turnover, lower performance ratings, and higher absenteeism than other employees. But Professor Boswell also noted that all these studies repeated a research mistake, so she carried out a study of her own that corrected it. She compared people who felt mistreated and filed grievances with people who felt mistreated and did not file grievances. It was a crucial difference, and when she examined her data she learned that there was no punishment effect for filing a grievance. By itself, the act of filing a grievance did not add any more grief to people's lives.

Professor Boswell studied employee perceptions of mistreatment and what they do with these perceptions. Her initial interest was the question described above concerning the punishment effect of filing grievances, but she also learned more that can help supervisors.

A surprisingly large percentage of the employees who answered her survey reported instances of mistreatment within the past year (67 out of 461). She labeled these "personalized mistreatment" because they involved discretionary actions by supervisors, that is, actions that were entirely within the control of the supervisor.

Out of these 67 instances of perceived mistreatment, only 22% of the people who experienced them actually filed grievances, even though this choice was available. Four out of every five instances of perceived mistreatment did not result in a grievance. So what did people do?

Boswell found that a large percentage engaged in work withdrawal behaviors. They got even. They left work early, let others do their work, made excuses to leave so they could avoid work, took sick leave when they weren't sick, didn't pay attention to their work, and skipped important meetings.

The important conclusion for supervisors is that when you observe work withdrawal behaviors such as these, the root cause may be a feeling of mistreatment, and it may have been something you did or said.

Supervisors are usually not trained to know how they should respond when they suspect that perceived mistreatment may lie at the root of a performance problem. Professor Boswell suggests we encourage informal grievances which allow disputants to talk directly to each other. It's an idea worth exploring.

Reference: Boswell, Wendy R. and Julie B. Olson-Buchanan (2004) Experiencing Mistreatment at Work: The Role of Grievance Filing, Nature of Mistreatment, and Employee Withdrawal. Academy of Management Journal, 47(1), 129-139.

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