Employees who experience broken promises tend to experience a series of intense negative emotions, which can lead to a desire to dominate, retaliate and get even with their employer. Tim Gouw/Unsplash
Have you ever taken office supplies home? Stole some pens and paper from your employer for your kids’ arts and crafts class? Used the office printer to print personal concert tickets?
In a recent anonymous survey by Papermate as part of the launch of a new pen, 100 per cent of office workers admitted to have stolen a pen at work. Other academic researchers have reported that up to 75 per cent of employees admitted to stealing office supplies in the past year.
The damage in economic terms caused by these “petty theft” behaviours have been valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually, may be responsible for roughly 35 per cent of an organization’s inventory shrinkage annually, and an average of 1.4 per cent of its total revenues.
So if these behaviours are so harmful to our economy, why do we engage in them?
When you start a new job, your employer tends to make a series of promises to you with regards to your employment that are not necessarily part of your written contract.
Imagine that your employer promised you “flexible working hours” and a “collegial work environment.” By making these promises, your employer has created a set of expectations. These expectations form the basis of what we call a psychological contract.
As long as your employer keeps up his/her part of the deal, you will be a happy, committed and loyal employee. The only imperfection to this situation is that it rarely exists. We know that over time, employers and employees’ perceptions of what was promised may start to drift apart.
In reality a lot of people will perceive that their employer is deviating from his/her original promises. Indeed, about 55 per cent of employees report that their employer broke promises within the first two years of employment, and 65 per cent of employees have experienced a broken promise within the last year.
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At this point you are probably thinking: “So if they break their promises so often, they must at least apologize for them, right?” Sadly enough, a series of recent findings has indicated that employers hardly ever seem to notice that they did something wrong.
As a consequence, they only try to justify or rectify their actions about six per cent to 37 per cent of the times. It therefore seems that employers break promises rather frequently, but they do not seem to acknowledge their wrongdoing or intervene to offer a solution.
If you wrong us, shall we not be vengeful?
Because these promises are such a central part of your employment agreement, you feel that when your employer breaks them, you can take what is “rightfully” yours.
Employees who experience broken promises tend to experience a series of very intense negative emotions such as anger, frustration and outrage, which in turn will lead to a higher desire to dominate, retaliate and get even with the employer.
Moreover, researchers found that this effect was most profound among those who were excellent at their jobs and expected to be treated fairly, meaning that an organization’s best employees are most likely to be “vengeful” in the face of broken promises.
Some studies have also demonstrated that some people seem to enjoy behaving vengefully, especially when they are in a higher status role and when they feel more dominant. So when we add one and one together, we notice that the combination of “a desire to retaliate” and “enjoying enacting vengeful” leads to a positive reinforcement of this behaviour.
As a consequence, employees are far more likely to be vengeful in the future when they are confronted with a broken promise because they mainly experienced positive consequences of their negative behaviour.
Getting even is short-lived
Does this mean that I am advocating for you to behave vengefully when your employer broke one or more promises to you? Of course not. Allow me to explain using the acronym BRAIN: Benefits, Risks, Alternatives, Information and Nothing.
First of all, when you experience a broken promise, take a step back and think about the potential benefits of being vengeful in light of the risks associated with stealing from your employer.
While it might feel sweet to get even with your employer who broke his/her promise to you, we know that the hedonic high of “getting even” is short- lived. In fact, it’s highly likely that you will soon feel guilty about your bad behaviour.
You also run the risk of getting caught and potentially losing your job. So ask yourself the question: “Is it truly worth it?” Instead think about the alternatives!
As I already mentioned, your employer is often unaware of the fact that he/she broke a promise to you. However, studies also found that you can change the dynamic if you speak up in a respectful manner.
Tell your employer which promise he or she broke and how it affects your functioning and ultimately the organization’s performance. Employers often respond well to this type of dialogue — at least in 52 per cent to 66 per cent of the cases — and will try to make things right by apologizing or offering a compensation.
However, before you do anything make sure you have all the information you need. Ask yourself questions such as:
- “Is this broken promise beyond my employer’s control?”
- “Did colleagues experience the same broken promise?”
- “Is this the first time that something like this happened to me?”
The more information you have, the better you can judge what to do in this case: Letting this one slide, speaking up, asking for a compensation, etc.
Recent findings suggest that you are more likely to trigger a reaction, such as getting an apology or a remedy, when you can demonstrate to your employer that he/she purposefully broke his/her promise. Because by doing so, you can demonstrate that they have control over the situation and thus can correct their wrongful behaviour.
Moreover, you are more likely to get an apology or a remedy if you can involve other people who experienced a similar broken promise; the power is in larger numbers.
Finally, and before you do anything, ask yourself: “Is it truly worth it?”
Maybe sometimes doing nothing is the best thing you can do in the face of a broken promise. I am not saying that you should not speak up when witnessing or experiencing injustices in the workplace, instead I am suggesting you pick your battles.
By deciding which aspects of your employment agreement are non-negotiable to you and which aspects are nice to have but not need to have, you can protect yourself from having to deal with every broken promise.
My advice is to use your BRAIN when being confronted with a broken promise in your workplace and know that you can speak up to get an apology or remedy instead of sticking your fingers in the supply closet.
About The Author
Yannick Griep, Assistant Professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, University of Calgary