New research shows four types of employees that can become threats to their own companies — and the reasons that drive them to the ‘dark side’. The findings yield insights into the broader issue of group dynamics and cooperation patterns.

Fistbump work.

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Researchers from the Universities of Glasgow and Coventry report that four types of employees could stab your company in the back — either willingly, or through negligence. These “omitters, slippers, retaliators, and serial transgressors”, however, aren’t solely to blame: the team says certain organizational changes within a company act as powerful triggers, capable of turning long-standing, loyal employees against the group.

No ‘me’ in this ‘company’

The research, performed by Professor Rosalind Searle and Dr. Charis Rice, involved collecting data from a company that was undergoing organizational change. The authors interviewed managers as well as employees, reviewed HR and security documents related to insider threat cases, and probed the general state of the organization through anonymous surveys.

“There are many examples of high-profile companies which have made the headlines following employee sabotage,” says Dr Charis Rice (Coventry University). “It is vitally important to understand how these situations come about: the types of employee who might resort to these behaviours; why it happens and how managers’ actions can prevent this happening.”

One of the key points of interest for the team was to uncover how negative organizational changes (unpredictable working environment, inadequate communication, inconsistent leadership and unfair changes or processes) might foster distrust between employees and their managers. They’ve also identified four types of employees that are likely to adopt ‘counterproductive work behavior’ in response to these changes. These range from time-wasting in the office to giving away confidential business information to competitors.

Finally, the team used their findings to create a body of resources that managers can draw on when managing organizational change in order to prevent such behavior.

The issue, at its core, seems to draw from a simple human reality — we tend to get really mad when faced with unfair behavior. This perceived unfairness fosters bitterness and resentment among those on the short end of the stick, which leads to a lack of trust. Over time, this reduces employees’ psychological attachment to their companies (‘they don’t care about me, why should I care about them?’) — once this divide sets in, they’re more likely to carry our behavior that makes them an “insider threat”.

According to the team, here are the four types of employees that could potentially do your company harm:

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  1. Omitters — These people aren’t necessarily out for vengeance, but they can be dangerous due to an ‘incapacity to effectively self-regulate their actions’. They (unintentionally) breach rules and need help from colleagues to reduce the risk they present.
  2. Slippers — Employees who occasionally undertake single acts of counterproductive work behavior, such as taking home sensitive documents or being rude.
  3. Retaliators — They deliberately undertake small acts to get back at the organization. Left unchallenged and uncorrected for long, their behavior can cause problems for colleagues, create additional costs for the company, and expose colleagues to risks.
  4. Serial Transgressors — These individuals undertake a wide array of counterproductive work behavior which undermines the authority of management and increases the security risks of those they work with.

Leave no man behind

Not all is lost, however. The authors also list several measures managers can take to keep employers happy and nip mutinies in the bud. These include being fair and consistent with HR procedures and their treatment of people during times of change; creating and nurturing a system of “organizational citizenship” in which reporting counterproductive working behavior is seen as a protective measure, not a punishment; transparency and consistency when communicating changes, as well as regularity (don’t cherry-pick which changes you communicate); adapting change initiatives in response to assessments of individual, team and organisations vulnerability; and finally, managers leading by example.

“Our aim was to provide a framework to predict, identify and mitigate counterproductive work behaviour and insider threat within the context of organisational change,” Rice adds. “We found examples of team and managerial distrust that led to employees withdrawing their effort from organisations and in some cases even bred revenge behaviour.”

“Critically, our results showed that such outcomes were often an unforeseen consequence of an existing ‘need to know’ security culture and in part, the perceived heavy-handedness of HR and security teams with whom staff felt reluctant to share concerns,” explains Rosalind Searle from the University of Glasgow.

While the research focused on economic organizations, i.e. companies, the findings do tap into the larger issue of loyalty to the group and how humans cooperate with one another. Simply put, the findings showcase the importance of trust (from both parties involved) when we’re trying to work together — make someone feel they don’t have a voice, and they won’t be big on taking part in the ‘group’ effort. Taking unilateral decisions when the consequences also impact those who work with you is a very effective way of shooting yourself in the foot.

In the end, it seems to me that the findings can be roughly boiled down to “people need to feel that they matter” for them to collaborate. Times of change are especially likely to raise problems in this area because it can ‘leave people behind’, so to speak; new rules can leave old relations feeling like they’re getting a raw deal if their voice isn’t taken into account.

That’s a guiding principle we can, and should, follow in all areas of our life, not just work — because friendships and romantic relationships are collaborations themselves, aren’t they? Treat others with respect, and it will be returned. Cherish your friends, and they will be your friends for life. Consider your partner’s wishes in everything you do, involve them in your choices, and they’ll blossom under your eyes.

Or at the very least, they won’t take sensitive documents home with them. Still a win, in my book.

The project’s results can be accessed on the Center for Research and Evidence of Security Threats’ website here.