Deviance in the Workplace

Employers of all sorts have been in the news lately with harrowing stories about the terrible behaviors of their employees, including those in positions of trust. Corporations, government, churches, and schools have become the scene of abhorrent acts of exploitation, harassment, and worse, thereby exacerbating the situations for the victims. Question are being asked about the operational protocols, which are often considered to be “broke,” and about widespread cover-ups by people in organizational leadership. In the most egregious cases of workplace deviance, there is a toxic combination of employees making poor personal choices and systemic organizational failures that escalate bad behaviors. The results devastate the victims and the employer’s stakeholders.

Deviant workplace behaviors range from crimes of violence and harassment, to acts such as theft, willful ignorance of rules, cyber-loafing, and even sabotage. It is estimated that at least one third of employees engage in some form of workplace deviance during their career. This spectrum of deviance imposes billions in various financial losses each year on not only the organization, but also American society.

Employers can learn from research done on this topic to address this threat with a combination of enhanced awareness and proactive strategies. Certainly there are differences in each case, but research describes these common warning signs to identify deviant workplace behaviors:

  • Secrecy, cliques, and rumors;
  • Aggressive, unprofessional, and intimidating behaviors;
  • Lack of accountability, controls, and oversight;
  • Absenteeism, turnover, and anxiety; and
  • Defensiveness, fear, and willful ignorance.

A workplace culture marked by these behaviors is at higher risk of nurturing deviant behaviors. As part of an organization’s risk mitigation strategy, it may be fruitful to evaluate the workplace for these factors. To reduce the potential for deviance, research offers these preventive interventions to foster appropriate behaviors:


  • A culture of ethical behaviors must be defined, trained, and modeled by all employees, especially management.


  • Leaders must model ethical and appropriate behaviors, holding themselves accountable.
  • Visibly and publicly committing to ethical practices makes an impact.

Hiring Practices

  • Screening and verification of an applicant’s information may prevent individuals prone to deviance from entering the workplace.
  • Assessments can identify traits of concern, but be sure to use scientifically validated methods.
  • Reference checking, especially with former employers, can provide useful insight.
  • Carefully selected interview questions and techniques can provide evidence of behaviors.


  • Ask employees about their workplace experiences to gauge satisfaction and identify problems.
  • Collect data from multiple sources (e.g., surveys, listening tours, 1:1 meetings, and exit interviews), analyze data for trends, and take meaningful action.
  • Visual observation and unannounced in-person tours of workplaces are important as a method of gathering firsthand intelligence and gauging the “atmosphere.”
  • Technological surveillance of the workplace may be appropriate, based on unique circumstances.


  • Clearly define and consistently enforce consequences of deviant behaviors made by all employees.
  • In addition to the above steps, employers may stave off deviance from taking root by creating a workplace culture marked with these traits:
  • Respect and trust. Efforts to build authentic and professional workplace relationships enhance meaningful bonds between employees.
  • Safe communication. Employees who feel safe to express their ideas and concerns are less likely to turn a blind eye to deviance.
  • Mission focused. Helping employees understand their role in achieving the organization’s mission and values engages them at a deeper and more meaningful level.

Employers Council’s expertise, resources, and services help members address deviance in the workplace. For assistance with any of the resources in this article, please email