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Washington State University
Dividend - Fall 2020 Research

Volunteering Allows Employees to Rationalize Bad Behavior at Work

Story by Becky Kramer

Companies often encourage their employees to volunteer for community projects. The donated labor helps create positive buzz for the businesses while promoting good citizenship and addressing needs in the local area.

But behind the social media posts of smiling employees hauling trash from parks and beaches, or handing out water during festivals, there’s a darker side to volunteering, according to new research by Teng Iat (Lawrence) Loi, a doctoral candidate studying management in the Carson College of Business.

The more time employees spent volunteering, the more likely they were to engage in deviant behaviors at their workplace, according to the study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Volunteering—particularly when it’s encouraged by an employer—can promote feelings of entitlement, allowing employees to use their good deeds in the volunteer arena to rationalize bad behavior at work, says Loi.

“To balance the moral ledger, employees might do things like call in sick, work less hard, or take company supplies for personal use,” Loi says.

The study is among the first to look at the potential backlash for companies that promote volunteerism, Loi says. He’s the primary author of the research coauthored by Carson College faculty members Kristine Kuhn, Arvin Sahaym, Kenneth Butterfield, and Tom Tripp.

Volunteering is commonplace among U.S. workers, according to 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 27 percent of employees said they volunteered for one or more charities every year, and past research has focused on the positive benefits.

“There are so many good things about volunteering, I certainly would not discourage it; however, managers should be aware of the risks,” says Loi, who studies behavioral ethics in the workplace.

Corporate Versus Personal Volunteering

WSU researchers conducted two surveys. They asked participants how often they volunteered and measured their feelings of entitlement. People also reported how often they engaged in deviant behaviors at work, such as swearing at a coworker or littering.

“Participants who frequently volunteered were more likely to perceive they had earned moral credits, feel more psychologically entitled, and in turn, display more deviant behaviors toward their coworkers and organization,” the researchers concluded.

The second survey asked participants if their volunteering was encouraged in part or whole by their employers, or if it was a personal choice not connected to their work.

“People who did more corporate volunteering felt more entitled than those who volunteered for personal reasons,” Loi says.

Reducing Deviant Workplace Behavior

When companies create work environments that are considered fair, their employees are less likely to engage in deviant workplace behavior—even if they feel entitled, the researchers say.

Along those lines, companies could offer paid leave on Fridays for employees to volunteer, rather than requiring workers to give up weekend time, Loi says. Or, companies could offer comp time or other recognition acknowledging employees’ extra efforts.

“For employers to hit the sweet spot—where they maximize the benefits of volunteering without promoting deviant behavior—some type of compensation could be helpful,” Loi says.