Abused Workers Fight Back by Slacking Off

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Employees toiling under an abusive supervisor often rebel quietly and indirectly by slacking off on the job and handing in sloppy work.

Researchers at Florida State University surveyed more than 180 employees from a wide variety of professions, asking whether they had endured a history of abuse from their bosses, then asking a slew of workplace performance questions.

Employees with difficult bosses checked out in the following ways:

  • 30 percent slowed down or purposely made errors, compared with 6 percent of those not reporting abuse.
  • 27 percent purposely hid from the boss, compared with 4 percent of those not abused.
  • 33 percent confessed to not putting in maximum effort, compared with 9 percent of those not abused.
  • 29 percent took sick time off even when not ill, compared with 4 percent of those not abused.
  • 25 percent took more or longer breaks, compared with 7 percent of those not abused.

Whether the abusive boss causes apathetic employees or vice versa is not known.

“However, it is clear that employee-employer relations are at one of the lowest points in history,” researcher Wayne Hochwarter said.

Employees who did not have a belligerent boss were three times more likely to proactively fix problems and approach their supervisors with ideas to help the company, according to the new study, which Hochwarter and Samantha Engelhardt plan to submit for publication to a research journal.

Behind the office doors

Employees say that abuse from bosses includes put-downs in front of others, ignored e-mails and other correspondence and being berated.

Hochwarter and his colleagues conducted another survey in 2006, in which they polled about 700 people in a variety of professions about supervisor treatment, finding:

  • 31 percent reported their supervisor gave them the "silent treatment" in the past year.
  • 37 percent reported their supervisor failed to give credit when due.
  • 39 percent noted their supervisor failed to keep promises.
  • 27 percent noted their supervisor made negative comments about them to other employees or managers.
  • 24 percent reported their supervisor invaded their privacy.
  • 23 percent indicated their supervisor blamed others to cover up mistakes or to minimize embarrassment.

Trust and communication

Both studies, Hochwarter says, bring to the forefront the damaging interactions between employees and managers that can get played out on a daily basis. "It calls to light this caustic relationship that management and supervisors are often having these days [with employees]," Hochwarter told LiveScience.

Hochwarter suggested that basic civility, including a commitment to active communication, could resolve many workplace problems.

"If organizations would simply spend much more time addressing issues that relate to trust and communication, then a lot of this would get resolved," Hochwarter said.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.