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Rethinking Organizational Misbehaviour: From

Terminology to Typology

Purpose of paper: The purpose of the paper is to examine an under-theorised feature of
organizational research – misbehaviour of front-line employees – and provide an inter-disciplinary
typological framework for both practical and academic ends.

Design/methodology/approach: The paper attempts to make a theoretical contribution by

synthesising extant literature into a typology.

Findings: The typology posits misbehaviour as five distinct organizational-related activities. They
include two forms of employee subversion – one form acted out within the organization and one
acted outwith the organization, tactics that enable employees to survive and cope with work,
understandings between front-line employees and managers that deviate from the official rule book,
and, actions that relate to hidden or informal organizational and employee identities.

Research limitations/implications: Additional empirical investigations may be required to confirm

or develop the proposed typology

Practical implications: The paper offers an applied, yet critical perspective and understanding of
common and everyday acts of organizational misbehaviour performed by front-line employees.

What is original/value of paper: The proposals from the paper are based on an eclectic range of
theoretical and empirical research papers. The result is a broad typology of organizational
misbehaviour that incorporates and reconciles many of the features of previous categorised

Paper type: Conceptual

Key words: organizational misbehaviour, typology, mischief

“You don’t like your job, you don’t strike. You go in every day and do it really half-assed. That’s the
American way” (Homer Simpson from the television programme “The Simpsons”).


Current attempts to establish understandings of the misbehaviour of low-level employees are

rendered problematic by competing academic disciplines that make explicit and implicit reference to

it. The problems are characterised in many ways and relates to how organizations should be

theorised, what acts actually constitute misbehaviour, and how the occurrence of misbehaviour can

be best explained. For instance, the Organizational Behaviour (OB) approach is based on a unitary

perspective of organizations, tends to focus on quite negative dimensions of workplace behaviour or

the ‘dark side’ of organizations, such as employees inflicting damage on employer property,

dysfunctional work attitude and social loafing, and that misbehaviour can on the whole be explained

by an ill-suited match between employee and organization (e.g., Vardi and Weitz, 2004; Vardi and

Wiener, 1996; Sagie, Stashevsky and Koslowsky, 2003).

For industrial sociologists, such as Ackroyd and Thompson (1995 and 1999), misbehaviour is viewed

from a radical pluralist perspective, in that misbehaviour is one of many products of organizational-

related structured antagonism, or the subjection of employees to the authority of management and

the need to plan production in accord with the needs of a capitalist market (Edwards, 1986). The

nature of the capitalist labour process therefore leads, in this case, to micro-conflicts between

employees and employers. Having said that, it is generally believed by industrial sociologists that

there is a realm of misbehaviour – defined by acts including flirting or minor examples of sexual

harassment on work time – that fits uncomfortably, or in some circumstances goes beyond, an

orthodox labour process model of management control and accommodation, and, employee

resistance and consent (Thompson and Newsome, 2004). As things currently stand, the two main

approaches offer a great deal to those with quite narrow managerial and practitioner interests, or

those critical of modern management practices and motivated to studying the agency and

experiences of employees at a time noted by a demise of organized labour. However, the contrasting

nature of both fields of interest results in misbehaviour being portrayed either as dysfunctional

behaviour, or a micro-form of class antagonism.

Clearly, both perspectives are valid within their own academic domains and there are lessons to be

learnt from both OB and industrial sociology, yet, as will become evident in the next section, more

thought is required in offering a conceptualisation of misbehaviour that goes beyond serving certain

interests. The main thrust of this paper, therefore, is to revisit the vast theoretical and empirical

literature that considers misbehaviour is some shape or form and to propose a fresh approach and

understanding of a persistent, complex and varied set of organizational phenomena. The method

taken involves a re-assessment of the extant literature on misbehaviour. The process begins by

examining the recent interest in misbehaviour as noted in the fields of OB and industrial sociology.

Included in this section is a review of how misbehaviour is portrayed in gender studies and industrial

relations. There follows a second section that begins with a re-examination of the multitude of terms

and expressions associated with misbehaviour – a means to appreciate the rich character of

misbehaviour. The third part of the analysis reviews the literature on misbehaviour from a historical

perspective – a means to identify consistent and concrete features of misbehaviour. The paper ends

with a discussion of the main findings from the synthesis of secondary research resources and

details an updated typology of misbehaviour.

Why the recent interest in misbehaviour?

Defining misbehaviour

In the academic discipline of OB Misbehaviour is said to involve:

…any intentional action by member/s of organization/s that defies and violates (a) shared

organizational norms and expectations, and/or (b) core societal values, mores and standards of

proper conduct (Vardi and Wiener, 1996, p.153).

Vardi and Wiener subdivide misbehaviour into three categories – to benefit the self, to benefit the

member's employing organization as a whole, and, inflict damage. Subsequent work by Vardi and

Weitz (2004) reiterates the same definition and categorization. Other OB theorists with a specific

interest in misbehaviour, such as Sagie et al. (2003, p. 153), believe it to be equated with

‘dysfunctional attitudes’, or, ‘the kind of organizational behaviour that can be expected when

normative work values are not a deciding factor'. Acts not considered by OB theorists to constitute

misbehaviour include accidental damage, human error, accidents and slip-ups. Broadly, OB theorists

take a functional approach and see misbehaviour as employees consciously breaking and violating

formal company rules and regulations. Misbehaviour in this sense is also said to be about breaching

broader, yet far from clearly defined or fully shared societal norms or moral order.

In industrial sociology key writers on misbehaviour – Ackroyd and Thompson (1999, p. 2) – borrow

Sprouse's (1992, p. 3) definition of sabotage – “anything you do at work you are not supposed to do”

– to define misbehaviour, although questions remain about how useful this definition is. Further

comments by Ackroyd and Thompson leads to a portrayal of misbehaviour as a range of conflicts

between employer and employee concerning time, product, work and identity dimensions of the

labour process. The conflicts, in turn, are defined by levels of intensity that range from commitment

to hostility. Such conflicts usually involve employees seeking to carve out of autonomy in the face of

restrictive working practices. Excluded acts include formal whistleblowing and serious organizational

fraud. More recently, Thompson and Newsome (2004) likened misbehaviour to anything other than

organized and conscious collective action by labour as a wider class agent. A further definition is

presented by Watson (2003) who outlines what he calls organizational mischief:

[Organizational mischief involves] [a]ctivities occurring within the workplace that (a) according to

official structure, culture and rules of the organization, ‘should not happen’, and (b) contain an

element of challenge to the dominant modes of operating or to dominant interests in the

organization (2003, p. 230).

Watson’s portrayal of misbehaviour seems to benefit from blending ideas from both OB and

industrial sociology, yet his definition, like in previous instances, does not seem to encapsulate the

vast range of activities that could be associated with misbehaviour. Nevertheless, to depict

misbehaviour as some sort of unexpected or unplanned for by-product of the employment

relationship, or an informal or unofficial interaction between employee and employer, is a good basis

to begin a re-assessment. To continue the re-assessment, though, requires a review of why

misbehaviour has commanded a relatively high degree of recent interest.

Institutional denial

It would appear that the neglect of misbehaviour relates to the nature of OB as an academic

discipline. Broadly, it could be said that, in historical terms, OB has an institutional bias towards the

conventional side of organizations. Where misbehaviour is given attention it tends to be at the cost of

unconventional practices to businesses. Further reasons for the neglect can be found in the work of

the key writers from this perspective. As such, the works of Vardi and Weitz (2004), Vardi and

Wiener (1996) and Sagie et al (2003) point towards the following explanations.

Firstly, OB researchers and theorists neglect misbehaviour because top management generally has

no interest in studying misbehaviour and even less interested in making any findings public (Vardi

and Weitz, 2004). It is believed that this approach relates back to the origins of management theory

and how attentions ever since have been focused on increasing production and motivation. As a

consequence, the ever-demanding habits of management have created a healthy demand for

practitioners, consultants and academics to resolve their problems. Crucially, the manner in which

this occurred has led to a massive array of models, research and practical advice that emphasises

the creation of positive behaviour and omits a vast range of organizational activity that could be

considered misbehaviour.

A second reason for the neglect of misbehaviour relates to the methodological limitations of a great

deal of OB research and theory. For instance, as Vardi and Weitz point out quite explicitly, OB tends

to focus on a rather small number of organizational phenomena. What is more, the problems

associated with studying certain ring-fenced aspects of organizations are compounded by the

research methods typically used in OB – that is, quantitative, precise, and rigorous language to

describe ambiguous organizational phenomena. The outcome is that OB researchers and theorists

do not effectively conceptualise irregular and often obscure dimensions of everyday organizational

life. In other words, the field of OB is neglectful of misbehaviour because there is general belief that it

has no part to play in organizational success (however success may be defined) and is off the OB


The missing subject debate

Drawing on an inter-disciplinary body of literature, Thompson and Ackroyd (1995) believe current

research on new management initiatives all but removes labour as an active agency of resistance in

a considerable portion of theory and research. In essence, they believe the most recent crop of

research and theory overstates the effects and effectiveness of new management practices as a

means to control misbehaviour. As such, Thompson and Ackroyd argue that contemporary

management practices (such as human resource management (HRM) and total quality management

(TQM)) do not necessarily lead to an increase in compliant employees. Instead, however, they

believe three particular forces conspire to make it seem as if misbehaviour is in decline, becoming a

thing of the past, and therefore irrelevant in current debates.

The first problem identified by Thompson and Ackroyd relates to the changing social, political and

industrial context since the late 1970s. This includes the fracturing of collectivism – noted acutely in

the British Workplace Industrial/Employee/Employment Relations Series (Millward et al, 2000;

Kersley et al., 2006) and how employees have been denied access to traditional sources of

collective power because of political action. As a consequence of such change, it is often assumed

that the decline of trade union memberships is synonymous with an acceptance of managerial


Moreover, Thompson and Ackroyd believe many organizational theorists understate the alienating

tendencies and over-estimate how effective new management initiatives such as TQM are at

controlling and satisfying employees. In effect, such contemporary organizational theory has implied

that the ‘spaces’ for employees to misbehave in have declined. The basis of the counter-claim is that

the shadow of control-orientated scientific management continue to cast a shadow over ‘employee

friendly’ management practices such as HRM and TQM (Smith and Thompson, 1998), said to

represent a major departure from alienating Fordist techniques (Piore and Sabel, 1984; Womack et

al, 1990). The rhetoric of these management techniques points to more humanistic work practices

that are aimed at minimising waste, involving staff in low-level decision-making and creating an

inclusive organizational culture. Coupled to less bureaucratic organizational hierarchies and more

humanistic ways of managing labour relations are new ways for management to secure data that can

be used to control the labour process. For instance, while small groups of employees are commonly

delegated responsibilities – once the work of supervisors or line managers – electronic technologies

are used to monitor the effectiveness of teams. As a consequence, if we believe the rhetoric of HRM

and TQM, in that employees have less reason and space to misbehave, then it is unlikely

researchers will go looking for it, never mind see it as important factor in organizational research.

Finally, Thompson and Ackroyd believe the neglect of misbehaviour relates to how descriptions of

new management practices rely heavily on Foucauldian conceptual props. This is with particular

reference to one of main tenets of Foucauldian labour process theory – that of the panopticon and

how the observed can be seen but cannot see, while the observers see everything but cannot be

seen – and how contemporary monitoring and surveillance devices commonly used by management

are alleged to result in docile and useful bodies (Sewell, 1998). The result is that misbehaviour

disappears from the theoretical equation because two particular (problematic) assumptions are made

about management. The first is that management is able to monopolise knowledge of the labour

process and the second is that the aim of management control is to create obedient bodies rather

than willing subjects. Taken together, the main assumption made about relating electronic

surveillance with idea of a panopticon is that misbehaviour is likely to become less prevalent where

electronic surveillance is used effectively. As a consequence of this assumption, misbehaviour has

become a marginal feature of both Foucauldian and broader debates on the labour process.

Further perspectives on misbehaviour

Misbehaviour is also a phenomena discussed in several other academic disciplines. For instance, in

gender studies, we see quite a distinct dimension of misbehaviour emerging. Misbehaviour in gender

studies tends to concern males defending masculine identities in an organizational context and how

masculinity is in reality a crucial, yet often hidden dimension of a broader organizational identity

(Collinson and Collinson, 1989; DiTomaso, 1989; Levin, 2001). An account of men trying to preserve

the dominance of a masculine identity, sponsored implicitly by senior management, is outlined in the

following passage taken from an ethnography of a trading floor of a large, American commodities


When the [working environment becomes] less active, the more overtly sexualized repertoire of

joking and getting along emerges. Men and women use jokes to pass time, fit in and relieve

tension, but a direct result of men’s sexual banter is to facilitate group solidarity among men to

the exclusion of women. Strong heterosexual joking is predicated on men being the sexual

agents of jokes and women being the objects (Levin, 2001, p. 126).

Further dimensions of gender-related misbehaviour include women subverting dominant masculine

identities (Cockburn, 1991; Game and Pringle, 1983; Gutek, 1989; Pollert, 1981), women taking

advantage of their sex appeal to get around male supervisors (Pollert, 1981) and female flight

attendants feigning responses to lurid comments from male passengers (Hochschild, 2003). Further

details of Gutek’s (1989) research highlights the many ways in which sexuality can be the spur for a

range of misbehaviour:

More common [than sexual coercion from either sex] are sexual jokes, use of explicit terms to

describe work situations, sexual comments to co-workers, and display of sexual posters and

pictures engaged in by men at work (Sex and sports, some observers claim, are the two

metaphors of business.) The use of sex can be more subtle than either hostile sexual remarks or

sexual jokes. Although this tactic is often assumed to be used exclusively by women, some men,

too, may feign sexual interest to gain some work-related advantage (1989, p. 63-64).

Commentary on what could be interpreted to be misbehaviour is also a feature of industrial relations

research. In industrial relations theorists seem to view misbehaviour as a lesser version of strike

action, or action short of strike action (Bean, 1975; Blyton and Turnbull, 2004; Hyman, 1981; Nichols

and Armstrong, 1976). From this perspective, misbehaviour is taken to represent the actions of

unorganized employees. In effect, misbehaviour is synonymous with a widespread and increasing

inability of employees to offer a coherent and organized response to management strategies

(Beynon, 1984). As such, industrial relations theorists link misbehaviour to record low levels of strike

activity (Hale, 2007).

Moreover, some theorists believe acts such as sabotage – in the form of grievance bargaining or

deliberate poor workmanship – are intimately bound up in the labour process (Zabala, 1989). That is,

employees informally or unofficially constantly challenge the actions of management, either directly

or indirectly, as the following excerpt suggests:

Sabotage…fills a gap left vacant in the collective bargaining process – it is a supplement to, and

reform of, shop floor bargaining between foreman and union committeeman. It is a feature of job-

control unionism. But it is often an ineffective defensive tactic, sabotage is clearly limited in the

extent to which it can affect policy decisions by the corporation or the national trade union (1989,

p. 30).

Therefore, certain acts of misbehaviour closely resemble activities associated with strike activity,

collective bargaining and being in a trade union. However, a problem with viewing misbehaviour in

this way is to assume all misbehaviour is about labour-management relations. Adding a gender

studies perspective to the conceptual equation leads us to a broadening of the debate that surrounds

what constitutes organizational misbehaviour.

From neglect to revision

Taking the two main approaches together at first it would seem that we could make the following

assumptions about the recent interest in misbehaviour. Of particular note is how misbehaviour has

been gradually marginalised from academic debate despite being a feature of contemporary

research (e.g. Taylor and Bain, 2003; Mulholland, 2004; Townsend, 2005). The reasons behind the

marginalisation of misbehaviour vary and include a refusal to admit it exists. Researchers, moreover,

may also have a trained incapacity to detect misbehaviour (Ackroyd and Thompson, 1999). It also

seems that an emerging and popular form of organizational analysis, related to new forms of

electronic control mechanisms, overstates the difficulty employees have in carving out autonomy in

such a closely monitored environment. More importantly though is the magnitude and scale of

neglect, although it would probably be wrong to suggest that there is a conspiracy against

developing conceptualised models of misbehaviour. However, to the detriment of knowledge in

general, positive organizational phenomena are clearly given far too much attention over negative,

hidden and unofficial organizational phenomena.

By drawing on research associated with gender studies it can be seen how misbehaviour is not just

about challenging the organization’s rules and regulations. In reality, many forms of misbehaviour

cannot be exclusively associated with asymmetrical labour relations. Nor can it be entirely

conceptualised as some sort of mismatch between the psychometric profile of an employee against

the formal aims and objectives of the organization. For certain, and due in good part to the decline of

traditional industrial relations practices associated with the post-war consensus period, misbehaviour

represents a realm of organizational activity in need of urgent conceptualisation. To serve this end it

would be reasonable to revisit extant literature that covers acts that fall outside formal and openly

accepted ‘behaviour’, yet stops short of extreme forms of activity, such as fraud and serious assault.

A review of existing research on misbehaviour

Expressions and terms associated with misbehaviour

There are literally scores of expressions terms that are synonymous with misbehaviour to be found

across the social sciences. However, the purpose of identifying a range of examples and terms

related to misbehaviour has its purposes other than making a list for sake of a list. Quite simply, an

approach of this kind is a starting point in allowing an appreciation of the many ways in which

misbehaviour can and has been interpreted over many decades of organizational research. It also

demonstrates the rich variety and forms misbehaviour can take.


Figure one summarises some existing work that details examples of misbehaviour. At one extreme,

misbehaviour could include drug use at work (Mangione and Quinn, 1975). More minor versions of

misbehaviour include, ‘licking up to foremen’ (Nichols and Armstrong, 1976), gossiping (Noon and

Delbridge, 1993), clowning (Ackroyd and Thompson, 1999), and daydreaming (Mangione and Quinn,

1975). The following example demonstrates a range of misbehaviour and indicates why it may


A worker can retreat from his or her work by means other than simply not showing up for work (as

reflected in measures of turnover, absenteeism, or lateness). He or she can also withdraw

psychologically through day-dreaming, through a self-divestment of the psychological importance

of work, or [chemically] through the use of drugs at work to help him or her through a day at work

(Mangione and Quinn, 1975, p. 114).

A further interesting dimension of misbehaviour includes employees working on homers and

performing personal chores on company time (Anteby, 2003). Such activity has also been referred to

in the literature as working on government jobs (Gouldner, 1954). Employees also misbehave when

it is difficult for them to express a grievance and as a result may take part in silent strikes (McKinlay

and Taylor, 1996a and 1996b), silent protests (Graham, 1995), or, deliberately take time off as a

form of protest (Behrend, 1951). Misbehaviour in a strictly deviant sense includes a range of

alternative and informal work practices frequently called fiddles (Ditton, 1977a; Knights and McCabe,

2000b; Mars, 1994; Webb and Palmer, 1998). A particular feature of misbehaviour is its secretive

nature and how observational-based research appears particularly suited to revealing its detail. For

instance, Roy (1952) describes an act of quota restriction from covert observations at an engineering


…the operators in my shop made noises like economic men. Their talk indicated that they were

canny calculators and that the dollar sign fluttered at the masthead of every machine. Their

actions were not always consistent with their words; and such inconsistency calls for further

probing. But it could be precisely because they were alert to their economic interests – at least to

their immediate economic interests – that the operators did not exceed their quotas (1952, p.


Moreover, figure two demonstrates the many terms that could be associated with misbehaviour, such

as the multi-dimensional phenomenon of sabotage (Analoui, 1995; Beynon, 1984; Brown, 1977;

Edwards, 1986; Flynn, 1916, Zabala, 1989). A first hand account by a front-line operative

demonstrates just one affect sabotage can have on the speed of service desired by customers, or

what Harris and Ogbonna (2002) call customary-public service sabotage:

You can put on a real show. You know – if the guest is in a hurry, you slow right down and drag it

right out and if they want to chat, you do the monosyllabic stuff. And all the time you know that

your mates are round the corner laughing their heads off (2002, p. 170).

Further mention of misbehaviour includes research that looks at restriction of output (Lupton, 1963),

informal job satisfaction (Roy, 1958), pilferage (Analoui and Kakabadse, 1989; Ditton, 1977a, 1977b)

and employee theft (Anderton and Keily, 1988; Ditton, 1977b; Hawkins, 1984; Mars, 1994; Sagie et

al, 2003). An account of employee theft helps us see how pre-meditated and complex acts of

misbehaviour can be:

Art is waiting on a large party of twelve men, all of who have been ordering drinks from the bar

during dinner. The check is to be presented to the gentleman in charge and he will pay with a

credit card. After looking through all the drink tickets, Art decides to inflate the figure of the bar

bill, figuring that an extra four or five dollars will not be noticed. Art presents the bill and man pays

it (Hawkins, 1984, p. 57).

It would also seem that misbehaviour might not always be the direct result of how work is organized.

Examples of such misbehaviour could include friendly and offensive sexual humour (Cockburn,

1991), sexual politics (Gutek, 1989), the often-ignored dimensions of sexual discrimination

(DiTomaso, 1989), sex-role spillover (Gutek, 1989), or shop-floor sexism (Pollert, 1981). DiTomaso

(1989) provides an example of how sex-related misbehaviour can manifest:

Sex itself was mentioned by a number of women as a negotiating tool, used by both men and

women in the firm. Several women talked about women in the factory who slept with men to get

easier jobs or promotions (1989, p. 81).

A central theme in each example is the matter of sexuality or gender and how such identities may

come into conflict with other overt or even hidden organizational identities. Sexuality can also

manifest in a more co-operative form – that of an organizational romance (Quinn, 1977). What is

more, another dimension of employee identity, that of race, can also be related to acts of

misbehaviour. For instance, racism has been is a side feature of several workplace ethnographies

(e.g. Beaud and Pialoux, 2001; Cockburn, 1991; Linhart, 1981; Wallace and Leicht, 2004).


A type of misbehaviour certainly worthy of specific investigation includes whistleblowing (Edwards et

al, 1995; Rothschild and Miethe, 1994), yet not in a sense that directly relates to the introduction of,

for example, Britain’s Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. Furthermore, employees can misbehave

by spending far longer than is necessary at work to appear worthy of promotion (Bunting, 2004).

Employees also misbehave by outwardly giving the impression of commitment where high

performance systems prevail (that is, Svejkism), yet remain defiant wherever possible (Fleming and

Sewell, 2002). Other noteworthy examples note a more brutal form of employee satire aimed at

unsettling and critiquing managers and supervisors (Ackroyd and Thompson, 1999). Indeed, it is

believed that where employees struggle to get their views heard by management, satirical humour

remains a useful tool to tackle a sense of organizational disenfranchisement. The point is that it

seems increasingly appropriate to view whistleblowing, faking effort and commitment, and scathing

humour, as part of a radical agenda, rather than as an altruistic pursuit, a poor attitude to work, or a

failure to select the right staff.

Re-assessing terminology associated with misbehaviour

A consideration of the terms and expression associated with misbehaviour suggests the following.

Firstly, a brief review of extant research strongly supports the idea that there is a problem with

conceptualising misbehaviour, as it is synonymous with such a vast range of incongruous activities.

Moreover, there are problems associated with the language of misbehaviour. In particular is how

acts that would be seen as mostly legitimate in an industrial context broadly defined by joint-

regulation, or in a day and age when it was more of a norm to openly discriminate against women or

non-whites, are increasingly recast as devious activity in an era noted by long-term trade union

decline and a long term rise in the application of corporate identity programmes associated with the

practice of HRM and TQM. As such, associating certain employee behaviour with deviant

connotations ignores the plurality of interests that are so typical of employment relationships.

Moreover, the language of misbehaviour reflects a popular and common sensical view of

organizations in that management is commonly deemed to be right, moral and noble in its intentions,

while employees are irrational, uncivil and need to be protected from their own narrow interests.

From machine breaking to cyberloafing

Historical accounts of misbehaviour undoubtedly go back further than what is covered in the current

study. However, classical accounts of misbehaviour are typically associated with numerous reports

of organized machine breaking (Hobsbawm, 1968). It was said that there were two types of machine

breaking – Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire Luddites attacking machines as a means

of coercing their employers into granting them concessions with regard to wages and other matters,

and, a general sort of wrecking, more relevant to the current study, which was seen by many as the

expression of working-class hostility to new machines of the industrial revolution. Indeed, Hobsbawm

(1968, p. 7) likens the former action to collective bargaining by riot, and concludes that whilst

machine breaking could not stop the advance of technical progress, it did seem to help the plight of

the least skilled or esteemed employees of the time – farm-labourers (1968, p. 17). Other illuminating

accounts of nineteenth century sabotage suggest that new work disciplines emerging at the end of

the nineteenth century – that is, early forms of scientific management – emphasised time over task

and led to many outbreaks of sabotage with the intent to disrupt and shape newly introduced forms

of work organization (Brown, 1977). In this case, some industries in mid-Victorian Britain were forced

to concede defeat to employees who insisted on working for four days instead of the five or six days

required of employers.

In the early twentieth century it was not uncommon for employees to be accused of deliberately

working slowly to avoid a full day's work; sometimes referred to as systematic soldiering (Taylor,

1967). This was at a time when it was a common belief that employees had a natural instinct and

tendency to take it easy at work (The American Society of Mechanical Engineers – quoted in Taylor,

1967, p. 19). Employees of this age also reportedly stole from each other and indulged in fiddles

sometimes just to feed themselves (Orwell, 2003). However, there were also accounts of organized

and unorganized employees trying to address commonly held concerns. For instance, employees

sabotaging their work as a means to enforce employers into granting certain conditions (Flynn,

1916). Suggesting that even low level employees, without trade union representation and often

subjected to impoverished working and domestic conditions, retain a capacity to frustrate (that is,

misbehave) their employers.

In the years that included and immediately followed World War II, there was a clear increase in

industrial sociological studies that tried to find explanations for employees who deliberately restrict

their output. Examples of this trend include Roy's accounts (1952, 1953, 1954 and 1958) of quota

restriction and goldbricking, working on the angles of making out. Roy (1958) also provided

examples of resistance to and subversion of formally instituted managerial controls of production,

and, how informal group interaction – that is, ‘banana time’ (a daily playful ritual involving one

employee stealing from a colleague’s lunch box), allowed repetitive work to become more tolerable.

In contrast to Roy’s interests in employee attitude to piece-rate systems, research emerged that

looked at the rate buster – a rare breed of individual who refuses to be held back by the authority of

their peer group (Dalton, 1948). While this does not necessarily constitute misbehaviour in itself, it is

likely that this kind of behaviour may lead to conflict within work groups or even management

informally curbing the excesses of rate busters to guarantee broader co-operation amongst the

workforce. Indeed, Gouldner (1954), for example, researched how management often stopped short

of maximum theoretical command of labour and become drawn into what he refers to as indulgency

patterns. This is where management is seen to exercise a wide-range of concrete judgements so as

to create favourable sentiments amongst employees towards their employer. In other words,

managers use their discretion to create more favourable working conditions for subordinates. Later,

Gouldner (1965) suggested a violation of collaborative forms of misbehaviour, called indulgency

patterns, may lead to wildcat strike action. It is also demonstrative of how informal and implicit

agreements between workers and managers, which often deviate in varying degrees from official

codes of conduct, are often a necessary ingredient for successful and productive labour relations.

Finally, in an era noted by the attention given to informal dimensions of workplace activity, research

revealed how joking is often a means by which new members learn to be trustworthy and compliant

members of the work group (Bradney, 1957). The value of how even light-hearted humour can affect

workplace behaviour and attitudes is described as such:

In the store, joking occurs not only between two persons, but also between one person and a

group and sometimes between two groups. It occurs both in contacts necessitated by the system

and in personal contacts and may consist of either one of the following or a combination of these

– a jovial manner of passing the time of day or commenting on the weather or some other matter

of topical interest; mutual teasing about personal habits, appearance, love experience, morality,

and, in particular, work and method of work; telling funny stories in some way relevant to the

subject of conversation (Bradney, 1957, p. 183).

The 1960s brought with it more research on employee productivity. For instance, Lupton’s (1963)

detailed study of two factories looks at actions that fall outwith what Lupton calls the sacrosanct

goals of and norms of management. Baldamus (1961), moreover, considers informal relations

between employees. Goldthorpe et al (1968) studied affluent and supposedly non-militant employees

and went on to reveal undertones of disquiet and a reluctance of able operatives to become


In the 1970s research that mention acts that could be construed as misbehaviour includes infighting

amongst employees (Nichols and Armstrong, 1976), informal forms of protest such as spontaneously

walking off the line or stopping the line by sabotaging its workings (Beynon, 1984), and fiddling and

pilferage as a subculture of a bread delivery business (Ditton, 1977a). However, managing a

subculture is by no means an easy task as Ditton demonstrates using the words of a senior


You will always have the chaps who are out to make a bomb out of it…they kill the goose that laid

the golden egg…the majority of them would do it whatever phase of life they’re in, for the sort of

person who’s going to do this, he’s going to do it from word ‘go’…the corruption is there in the

mind every time, we don’t corrupt people, we try to put them off, or warn them not to overdo it

(1977a, p. 25).

Later in the decade research revealed fresh explanations for workplace sabotage that includes

temporary concerns of management to acts that fall outwith the remit of the current study – acts that

shut complete factories (Taylor and Walton, 1979). Finally, one of the most enduring pieces of

research that refers to misbehaviour considered the political motives behind making out (Burawoy,

1979) – acts of ‘game playing’ within the organization’s rules, which result in mutual benefit for

employees and managers (Noon and Blyton, 2002). Indeed, if such acts could be classified as

misbehaviour, then misbehaviour in certain forms is not detraction from capital accumulation; in fact

a certain type of misbehaviour could be one of the necessary ingredients in simultaneously

obscuring and securing the surplus value of labour.

By the 1980s it could be clearly seen that there was no shortage of research that contained

reference to misbehaviour. Indeed, such was the increase in research output that we need only dwell

on the work of a more differentiated style and scope. For instance, the decade is particularly

characterised by a rise in feminist perspectives of work. The examples include female factory

employees dealing with shop-floor sexism and mind-destroying boredom in whatever way possible

(Pollert, 1981). In a similar feminist style, Cavendish (1982) presented an account of conflict that

emerged at a clothes manufacturing company. A particular example includes female operatives

consistently warned for standing near the clocking off machine too early and implying that

misbehaving in this fashion relates more to the wider domestic obligations of females rather than an

outright subversion of management rules and regulations. Moreover, unauthorised absenteeism was

a common feature of the textile factory she was researching, as this excerpt suggests:

Everyone complained about being ‘jaded’. Getting up at 6.30 and working virtually until 7.30

knocked you out; you had to go to bed early not only to recover but also to be able to get up early

again. If you were off for a day, it was generally acknowledged that you’d ‘slept in’ because you

were too exhausted. You needed to take a day off now and then just to catch up on sleep. I used

to think it was a waste of time to take a day off work just to sleep in until I found you really needed

to. Some women ‘slept in’ regularly, about once every two weeks, so the absenteeism rate must

have been quite high (1982, p. 119).

Further research includes female flight attendants partially withdrawing from displays of emotional

labour when aggrieved (Hochschild, 2003), and the widespread and open degrading treatment of

‘checkout chicks’ by male co-workers (Game and Pringle, 1983). More masculine studies of the time

refer to the apparent normality of crime at work (Mars, 1994), and, very open acts of misbehaviour

like go-slows and short stoppages of work (Thompson and Bannon, 1985). However, the 1980s saw

a rise in the theoretical side of informal workplace activity and how misbehaviour could be equated

with acts normally associated with industrial relations practices, such as refusing to work overtime,

keeping a rigid adherence to the rules, breaching factory discipline and taking part in informal forms

of effort-bargaining (Hyman, 1981; Edwards, 1986; Edwards and Scullion, 1982).

Misbehaviour continued to be a dimension of workplace and management research throughout the

1990s and beyond. However, a changing political, economic and industrial landscape resulting in a

tremendous change in British labour relations (Cully, Woodland, O’Reilly and Dix, 1999), a

Japanization of British industry (Oliver and Wilkinson, 1992), an alleged increase in the potency of

management control systems (Sewell and Wilkinson, 1992a and 1992b; Sewell, 1998), and the

arrival of emancipatory post-Fordist production systems (Wickens, 1987; Womack et al, 1990),

coincided with a rift amongst labour process theorists – both noted by a particular interest in

resistance and misbehaviour. The rift was characterised by one group who believed the development

of labour process theory would be best served by staying loyal to its Marxian traditions and another

group characterised by post-modern accounts of the labour process. For instance, post-modernists

such as Knights and McCabe, 1998, 2000a and 2000b) believe employees may find it difficult to

misbehave in the current social, political and industrial climate. In contrast, orthodox theorists such

as McKinlay and Taylor (1996a and 1996b) believe resistance and misbehaviour can still be found

under the watchful eye of advanced management regimes. Similarly, Ackroyd and Thompson (1999
and 1995) focused specifically on enduring and new forms of misbehaviour as a means to refute

post-modern theoretical arguments. The debate has yet to be settled, but recent research seems to

back up the view that misbehaviour continues to be a feature of the modern workplace and

increasingly involving the appropriation of the organization’s information and communication

technology, such as employees drawn to cyberloafing (Lim, 2002; de Lara et al, 2006), cyberslacking

(Block, 2001), or abusing the Internet while at work (Griffiths, 2003).

From terminology to typology

Drawing on themes from the previous section, and an analysis of the historical picture of

misbehaviour, suggests the following. First and foremost misbehaviour is a workplace phenomenon

that is not going away – even in an era purported to be a new industrial order (Harvey, 1989) – and

represents a very good reason for periodically re-assessing and re-asserting the importance and

relevance of misbehaviour of organizational study and theory. Moreover, if we are indeed in a new

industrial era, continuity in misbehaviour is evidence in itself that the current era is also noted for

extraordinary links with the past. What is more, for example, there is continuity in men treating

women badly in the workplace, with perhaps discrimination taking a less obvious path than in years

gone by. Second, few empirical studies consider the vast range of forms that misbehaviour can take.

Third, it appears that there is also great continuity in the many forms misbehaviour can take. For

example, withholding effort, pursuing non-work objectives at work, sabotage, effort bargaining and

the discriminatory and underhand treatment of women by superordinates and colleagues, are

features of the both modern and the old workplace. In effect, the detail of management practice may

have evolved during this time, the ideology of what is acceptable conduct of an employee many have

fluctuated during this time too, yet what actually happens in organizations in terms of employee

conformance appears to be quite consistent.

A further breakdown of the synthesis process suggests the possibilities of a fresh typology of

seemingly disparate acts. To begin with, it would be quite reasonable to equate a type of

misbehaviour with employees attempting to undermine the authority of their superordinate peers

(see figure 3). In other words, one type of misbehaviour clearly involves low-level or informal

resistance to management practices. Examples of resistance include disobeying immediate orders,

silent strikes and silent protests, subversive humour, defiance at work, resistance by persistence and

certain forms of sabotage. In this sense misbehaviour clearly involves resistance to management

practices, and similar in nature to the strategies employed by trade unions when members are in

dispute with the employer.

Similar to a less recognised form of resistance or defiance are situations where employees clearly

externalise their resistance to management demands or expectations – in effect, employees

withdrawing from work as a means to protest against the employment policies of their employer.

Examples of this kind are less apparent in the literature; however, misbehaviour that occurs outwith

the organization, yet relates to organizational activity, includes defiant types of employee

absenteeism, turnover and whistleblowing. The distinctness of an employee externalising resistance

is that the act is carried out outwith the organization, yet the intention is to protest, often in an indirect

manner, about management activities.


A third type of misbehaviour exists in that some misbehaviour relates to how employees deal with

the pressures of work, but stop short of acting in a manner that seeks to change how the labour

process is conducted. More specifically, this type of misbehaviour involves employees pursuing

coping or survival strategies, such as through clowning, distancing, horseplay, mucking in, gossiping,

informal attainment of job satisfaction, and Svejkism. As such, surviving work is about minor

manipulation of the major rules and norms that guide organizational activity. Survival strategies, if

anything, are about employees acting in a creative fashion to offset the harsh and unpalatable nature

of some types of employment.

A fourth type of misbehaviour that emerges from the analysis points towards a co-operative and

consensual form of misbehaviour. In this situation senior employees connive with subordinates in a

manner that deviates from formal organizational rules and regulations, and in some case

employment or health and safety law. Examples of informal workplace practices include fiddles and

ripping off customers with the knowledge of management, indulgency patterns and games that relate

to the preservation of piece-rate systems. As such, this type of misbehaviour represents the hidden

and often unspoken side of official organizational policies, rules, procedures and contracts of


A fifth and final type involves matters that do not specifically relate to formal organizational identities,

such as those associated with teamworking or a business unit. For instance, an employee attempting

to suppress the cultural identity of a fellow employee, yet the suppression is not personal and instead

relates to the perpetrator’s allegiance to a hidden organizational identity. However, hidden

organizational identities are not the end of the matter as similar acts could equally be attributed to

employees acting on identities that are formed outwith the workplace and operate separately to

formal organizational identification programmes. Further acts related to non-organizational identities

include misbehaviour involving organizational romances, working on homers, culture wars in the

workplace, sexual voyeurism, harassing weaker and younger employees. As such, hidden

organizational identities, that include acting in a macho manner, and broader social identities, such

as defined by race or religion, form the basis of a fifth cogent type of misbehaviour. The fifth type of

misbehaviour, in effect, has two distinct dimensions that are as defined as much by the fact that it

may be impossible in some cases to distinguish between the two. One dimension of identity

misbehaviour reflects a reproduction of hidden organizational identities, such as, macho, white and

heterosexuality that may have been an overt organizational norm in times gone by, displayed

through sexism and harassment of those who do not fit the archetypal employee. The second

dimension is characterised by organizational romances and undertaking domestic chores on work

time, as well as similar that acts that are not as a result of hidden organizational identities, and are

reflective of identities that are not formed through organizational cultural programmes.

Discussion and conclusions

Misbehaviour has developed differently as a concept in different academic disciplines. This, in itself,

is not a major problem, yet it becomes problematic as it provides unsatisfactory outcomes for those

who have no vested or specific interest in OB, industrial sociology, gender studies or industrial

relations. The problem, as such, provoked a re-assessment and synthesis of a broad-range of

literature that explicitly and implicitly refers to acts that most would view as being outwith

organizational formality, yet not severe enough to compare with trade union strategies, nor verge on

illegal, dangerous and malicious activity. The synthesis of extant literature led to a range of fresh and

up-dated proposals that are believed to represent an advantage on previous work conducted on

misbehaviour. The main advantage is that all dimensions of misbehaviour are catered for instead of

an over-emphasis on conflicts or discrepancies between employees and employers, men and

women, and, organizational ideals and organizational realities.

The proposals also fit in with previous research specifically undertaken on misbehaviour. For

instance, the claims put forward by Ackroyd and Thompson (1999 and 1995) that misbehaviour is an

enduring feature of the old workplace continuing to be a feature of the modern workplace, were

clearly upheld. It is clear that the findings support the value of misbehaviour as a means to critique

claims made about new industrial orders (Piore and Sabel, 1984; Womack et al, 1990), new

management practices (Wickens, 1987), and new forms of control (Sewell, 1998). A further benefit of

researching a certain dimension of misbehaviour connects well with challenging less critical accounts

of, for example, sexual harassment or sexual discrimination (Game and Pringle, 1983; Levin, 2001),

as modern harassers and discriminators serve the hidden side of organizational rhetoric. The value

of conceptualising misbehaviour in such a fresh and distinct way is that it adds to how social

scientists can conduct research on misbehaviour and perhaps defend the belief that many social and

industrial relations problems continue to manifest in the modern organization. This being a slight

deviation from how Thompson and Newsome (2004) see misbehaviour in that some of this activity

can now be fitted much more comfortably into the orthodox labour process model. Further insights

proposed by Vardi and Weitz (2004) related to their categorization of misbehaviour also held up

reasonably well, particularly in the case of misbehaviour that benefits the organization. However, it

seems apparent that misbehaviour is more than benefiting the self, damaging the organization, and

in many instances beyond dysfunctional attitudes to work (Sagie et al, 2003). That is to say, the

review clearly highlights the limitations of OB perspectives on misbehaviour and how OB researchers

struggle to get to grips with the many pressing circumstances that all employees face on a day-to-

day basis. OB researchers also neglect the many identities and the complexity of those identities that

could be associated with organizations and employees.

The search for fresher findings from the existing research on misbehaviour was also prompted by a

belief that the terminology widely and long associated with misbehaviour is inadequate and often

inaccurate. For instance, the synthesis made it clear there is limited value in labelling an act as

withholding effort or using sex at work. The rationale for further conceptual development is that it

would stop, to a certain extent, the many that typically portray misbehaviour as mainly the doing of

irrational employees. Misbehaviour requires a more objective conceptualisation that takes into

account the context in which people work and the broader societal context that organizations fit into,

yet at the same time, be sensitive to the reality that workers, in the main, creatively or begrudgingly

accept, rather than openly diametrically oppose, the many alienating features of the capitalist labour


Providing a fresh typological framework for misbehaviour is believed to be the main contribution of

the paper. The first three typologies of resistance, externalised resistance and survival are clearly

linked to the nature of work and fit in well with ideas that surround radical understandings of the

labour process (e.g. Thompson, 1989). That is to say, a highly insightful way of viewing

misbehaviour is one that suggests employment relationships are typically based on unequal power

relations and less than similar interests. The fourth type, again, relates to a radical view of the labour

process in that employers and management must find ways in which to foster the consent of

employees to their own exploitation (Burawoy, 1979). As such, one category of misbehaviour is

noted most of all by its co-operative and consensual nature. Implying most of all that it should be

more widely acknowledged that conflict in the employment relationship can also be institutionalised

in ways beyond the formal realm of organizations (Mars, 1994). The final category is less precise

than the previous four and most likely to require future revision. However, for now, it is reasonable to

suggest that there is a dimension of misbehaviour that reflects hidden identities of organizations, as

well as the wider social identities of employees.

The essentials of this study, in a literary sense, are to propose fresh perspectives on misbehaviour.

However, for the manager or personnel practitioner, or those interested in organized labour, the

findings point towards a clearer basis by which seemingly irrational acts can be better understood.

That is to say, encouraging such parties to apply more objective labels to the misbehaviour they deal

with, or are in charge of investigating, is likely to result in more stringent investigations and action

plans, in all cases. From an industrial sociological perspective the ramifications for the findings are

probably less easy to address or act upon. Primarily what this implies is that current theories used to

explore the labour process and employment relationships are in need of development or revision. Of

particular concern is the absence of hidden organizational identities, and an employee’s wider social

identity, as a means to explore employee resistance and consent (Thompson, 1989). For those who

are reliant upon OB explanations for misbehaviour the implications run much deeper. Of particular

note is the over-reliance on rigid terminology and inflexible quantitative and precise research

methodologies. A further concern is a lack of objectivity and realism when viewing organizations and

the behaviour associated within them. After all, if the synthesis of extant literature demonstrates

more than anything else, it is to confirm that misbehaviour is not a separate feature of organizations,

it is in fact a neglected dimension of organizational theory. Put differently, an organization without

misbehaviour would be an organization without people, and an organization without people could not

function, let alone make a profit.

This paper has its weaknesses and broadly speaking a synthesis of extant literature is inferior to an

empirical approach. As is the case of many desk-based research papers, the author stresses the

urgent need to verify or modify such claims through empirical investigations, particularly in the case

of identity misbehaviour. Moreover, additional research and conceptualisation needs to be done on

the misbehaviour of employees, much higher up the strata of organizations. The author, however,

wishes to stress a wider urgency in the use of ethnographical methodologies and experimental

theoretical frameworks, ideally characterised by an ability to cope with the many identities present in

organizations, in a quest to find much more about such a vast, intriguing and under-researched

series of social phenomena.

Example Author(s) and year
Blue Monday Behrend (1951)
Clowning Ackroyd and Thompson (1999)
Collective bargaining by riot Hobsbawm (1968)
Cyberloafing Lim (2002); de Lara et al. (2006)
Cyberslacking Block (2001)
Cynicism about management in general, taking Taylor and Bain (2003)
the piss
Disobeying immediate orders Gouldner (1965)
Distancing Delbridge (1995)
Drug use at work Mangione and Quinn (1975)
Fiddling Ditton (1977a); Knights and McCabe (2000b); Mars (1994);
Webb and Palmer (1998)
Going to pub at lunch time Thompson and Bannon (1985)
Goldbricking, quota restriction, informal Roy (1952, 1953, 1954 and 1958)
attainment of job satisfaction, making repetitive
work tolerable
Gossiping Noon and Delbridge (2002)
Harassing weaker and younger workers Ackroyd and Cowdry (1992)
Homers or personal chores on company time Anteby (2003)
Horseplay Lupton (1963)
Leap-frogging [in pay deals] Edwards and Scullion (1982)
Licking up to foremen Nichols and Armstrong (1976)
Limiting the over-supply of slaves Flynn (1916)
Machine breaking Hobsbawm (1968)
Moonlighting Mars (1994)
Mucking in (informal) Pollert (1981)
Organizational romance Quinn (1977)
Part-time crime Ditton (1977a); Mars (1994)
Pilferage Analoui and Kakabadse (1989); Ditton (1977a, 1977b)
Racial discrimination Beaud and Pialoux (2001); Cockburn (1991); Linhart (1981);
Wallace and Leicht (2004)
Rash of notice-giving Lupton (1963)
Rate busting Dalton (1948)
Restriction of output Lupton (1963)
Ripping off customers Hawkins (1984)
Satire Ackroyd and Thompson (1999)
Sexual voyeurism Salzinger (2000)
Silent strikes and silent protest McKinlay and Taylor (1996b); Graham (1995)
Subversive humour Holmes and Marra (2002); Taylor and Bain (2003)
The withdrawal of efficiency Flynn (1916)
Tit-for-tat scoring (team peer review) McKinlay and Taylor (1996b)
Uncertified sickness absence Behrend (1951)
Underworking, slow working, systematic Taylor (1967)
soldiering, hanging it out, ca canae
Using sex at work Gutek (1989)
Withdrawal of emotional labour – offer a thin Hochschild (2003)
crust of display
Working on govvy jobs or government jobs Nichols and Armstrong (1976); Gouldner (1954)

Figure 1 Examples of misbehaviour

Term Author(s) and year
Additive forms of expression Bean (1975)
Alternative forms of conflict Edwards and Scullion (1982); Edwards (1986)
Attempts to assert control Linstead (1985)
Behaviour that violates significant organizational norms (46 Robinson and Bennett (1995)
different types identified)
Coping behaviour Storey and Harrison (1999)
Counterproductive, dysfunctional, deviant, disruptive, Sagie et al (2003)
antisocial, non-compliant, unconventional behaviour, or a
Creative attempts to survive mind-destroying boredom Pollert (1981)
Culture wars in the workplace Wallace and Leicht (2004)
Darker side of shopfloor culture Collinson (1988)
Defiance at work Analoui and Kakabadse (1989)
Destruction Analoui (1995)
Dishonest acts in the workplace Coyne and Bartram (2000)
Externalised resistance (turnover) Thompson (2003)
Game, the Burawoy (1979)
Indulgency patterns Gouldner (1954)
Intentional acts that violates organizational norms and Vardi and Wiener (2004)
Internet abuse in the workplace Griffiths (2003)

Knavery, skulduggery, cheating, unfairness, malingering, Cohen (1966)

cutting corners, immorality, dishonesty, betrayal, graft,
corruption, wickedness, sin
Men's ill-feeling to women Nichols and Armstrong (1976)
Minimalist syndicalism Elger (2001)
Neglected forms of resistance LaNuez and Jermier (1994)
Non-directed conflict Edwards and Scullion (1982)
Recalcitrance Ackroyd and Thompson (1999)
Rejecting the company's philosophy of forced co-operation Graham (1995)
Resistance by persistence and distance Collinson and Collinson (1994)
Responses to cultural change programmes Harris and Ogbonna (1998)
Sabotage Analoui (1995); Brown (1977); Flynn (1916)
Subterranean bargaining Zabala (1989)
Subtle forms of resistance Hodson (1995)
Svejkism Fleming and Sewell (2002)
Unconventional practices Analoui (1995)
Unorganized conflict Hyman (1981)
Whistleblowing Edwards et al (1995); Rothschild and Miethe
Withholding effort Kidwell and Bennett (1993)

Figure 2 Terms associated with misbehaviour

Type of misbehaviour Aim of act
Resistance to management practices Shape decision-making of management by
action within the workplace

Externalised resistance In-direct protest about treatment by management

Coping and surviving strategies Informal means to job satisfaction

Informal workplace practices Maintain a favourable order that suits parties to


Identity misbehaviour a. Sustaining hidden organizational identity, e.g.

racist or sexist approach to work and colleagues

b. Pursuance of non-work cultural values on

work time

Figure 3 A typology of misbehaviour

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