Understanding and combating Counterproductive Work Behaviours

by Dr Paul Vorster | Published on 25 January 2018 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

Counterproductive work behaviour, or CWB, is defined as “…intentional acts by employees that harm organisations or their stakeholders” (Spector et al., 2006, p. 30). CWBs include numerous destructive behaviours that may harm the organisation directly, or negatively affect its reputation, stakeholders, and/or ethical culture.


The crux of the matter is that most organisations pay little attention to ‘issues of civility’,

focusing instead on ‘rule enforcement’ approaches. 

CWBs are synonymous with ‘ethics behaviour risks’: employee behaviours that make organisations vulnerable to ethical breaches and public scandalsLet’s take a look at the characteristics of CWB and explore some effective strategies to reduce them.

What is CWB?

CWB includes behaviours such as the destruction and misuse of organisational property, withdrawal (being absent from work for no reason), failure to communicate mistakes to superiors, aggression towards colleagues and superiors (such as bullying and/or intimidation), purposefully doing work incorrectly, intentionally working at a slower rate, sharing confidential company information, theft, and dishonesty (Spector & Fox, 2005; Spector et al., 2006) …

…So, not the sort of thing that contributes to a healthy working environment. And yet it is highly prevalent.

Instone (2012) indicates that up to 89% of employees engage in CWB, and between 35% and 75% of employees have admitted to stealing from their employer. It has also been estimated that CWB costs organisations up to $50 billion annually in direct costs and that up to 20% of all business failures can be attributed to CWB alone (Thomas, 2012). While these statistics pertain largely to US organisations, it can be assumed that CWB is costly and harms organisations in South Africa as well. Which begs the question: what can be done?

Combating CWB: A little civility goes a long way

While there is a great deal of research into screening techniques to reduce the risk of employing individuals who are likely to engage in CWB, this will not be elaborated upon in this article. Instead, let’s explore techniques that target CWB in incumbent employees through policy, rules, legal enforcement, reprimand and even employment termination. The crux of the matter, as pointed out by Roxana (2013) and Lim, et al (2008), is that most organisations pay little attention to ‘issues of civility’, focusing instead on these ‘rule enforcement’ approaches.

‘Issues of civility’ include building a culture of good employee conduct, in which respectful interaction amongst employees and work-teams is the norm. This approach has been shown to significantly reduce incidences of, and the propensity for, CWB among both high- and low-risk employees. Meanwhile, pure ‘rule enforcement’ has been linked to employee discontentment, job accidents, overuse of sick leave, work-team conflict, productivity decline, and increased employee turnover (Lim et al., 2008).

Of even greater importance is the role of occupational stressors, which has been linked to employee burnout, illness, and employee turnover (Roxana, 2013). Occupational stressors include: work overload, poor relationships with colleagues, a lack of work-family balance, role ambiguity, excessive work responsibility, and hassles within the work environment, such as office politics.

Interestingly, Roxana (2013) found that treating employees civilly by recognising their contributions within the work context can drastically reduce the negative impact occupational stressors have on them. This is partly because employees feel that they are recognised for their sacrifices in the work context and are less likely, under these conditions, to lash out at their organisations.

Other factors that can reduce CWB include: better remuneration and incentive structures, using outcome-based performance evaluation, treating employees fairly and equitably, reducing occupational stressors by providing more resources to meet targets, and refraining from overpromising to employees and then underdelivering (Roxana, 2013; Thomas 2012).

Combating CWB: The importance of fairness

Fox et al (2001) have also demonstrated how ‘perceived organisational justice’ has a direct impact on the propensity for and frequency of CWB. ‘Perceived organisational justice’ refers to “the extent to which employees perceive workplace procedures, interactions and outcomes to be fair in nature” (Baldwin, 2006, p. 1).

Three types of perceived organisational justice exist. The first type is ‘distributive justice’, which is the degree to which outcomes (such as performance ratings and salary) relate to inputs (such as effort, education level and experience). If employees feel that their inputs are not equitably rewarded with certain outputs, they tend to become disengaged.

The second form of perceived organisational justice is referred to as ‘procedural justice’, which is the degree to which the procedures and processes are seen as fair and equitable, and the degree to which employees feel they have a voice in the organisation.

The final aspect of perceived organisational justice is ‘interactional justice’: the “…quality of interpersonal treatment received by those working in an organisation, particularly as part of formal decision-making procedures” (Baldwin, 2006, p.3). In other words, interactional justice relates to whether employees perceive the organisation as giving them truthful and accurate information, whether it respects employees and treats them with dignity, whether the organisation refrains from sexism and racism, and whether the organisation addresses perceived injustices with good justifications and/or is willing to apologise and explain possible injustices to employees effectively.

In summary, by simply treating employees with respect and dignity, informing them of organisational decisions, allowing employees to voice opinions, remunerating employees fairly, treating employees consistently, and eliminating prejudice, organisations can significantly reduce CWBs amongst employees. 


Although CWB is a complex phenomenon with many causes, much can be done from an organisational perspective to combat it. And indeed, these are largely common-sense measures which most of us would appreciate in our own professional lives: treating employees with civility, reducing occupational stressors, recognising work completed, offering equitable remuneration, and improving perceived organisational justice. It is important that organisations therefore start to focus on treating employees well and ensuring that good interpersonal relations are maintained between organisation and employee. Doing so can effectively combat CWB and possible ethics pitfalls in the work context.

Paul circle



Dr Paul Vorster is a Research Specialist at The Ethics Institute. He holds a doctorate of Industrial Psychology, which he attained from the University of Johannesburg.



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Giordano, C., Ones, D. S., & Viswesvaran, C. (2018). Integrity testing and counterproductive work behavior. In, B. J. Carducci, J. S. Mio, and R. E. Riggio (Eds.), Wiley-Blackwell encyclopedia of personality and individual differences: Vol. IV. Clinical, applied and cross-cultural research. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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Spector, P. E., Fox, S., & Domagalski, T. (2006). Emotions, violence and counterproductive work behavior. In, E. K. Kalloway, J. Barling, and J. Hurrell (Eds.), Handbook of workplace violence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

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