WorkWise: Betrayal in the workplace alarmingly common

culp@workwise.netJune 9, 2013 

(Neda Jafarzadeh) Engineer Tanner Emek (left), senior strategy analyst Susan Lyon (center) and financial markets analyst Maxime Rieman (right) are collaborating on a series of financial literacy tools at NerdWallet Inc., in San Francisco.

“We’d been working on a large tool for four or five months to allow people new to investing to search more than 15,000 mutual funds and identify the best ones for them,” says Susan Lyon, senior analyst at NerdWallet Inc., a financial literacy website based out of San Francisco, Calif. “It was a really big data set. Less than a week before launch, we found an error we’d have to correct.”

They didn’t have enough time. Traveling thousands of miles away in Vietnam, Neel Patel, vice president of engineering, responded to a call on Skype that compelled co-workers on both sides of the Pacific to work into the middle of the night over two consecutive nights. Profuse thanks flew through the ether to Vietnam, followed up by a team lunch.

This incident contrasts greatly with some statistics released by Hogan Assessment Systems Inc. in Tulsa, Okla., drawn from an online survey of 718 people in the workplace. The survey spanned ages 18 to above 75, with 82 percent of respondents between ages 25 and 64. An enormous 81 percent cited instances of co-worker and supervisory “betrayal,” including theft, lying, cheating or dishonest behavior.

The severity of these numbers makes the NerdWallet anecdote and its recounting for this column stand out even more. Why would Lyon do it?

“I just really appreciate my co-workers,” she says. She was quite struck by the alarming findings of the Hogan survey.

Who has the more accurate perspective – a helpful co-worker who doesn’t know any other way to work or survey findings that make the workplace look worse than bleak? Has the problem emerged because of overwork, competition, company culture and human failure?

Organizational psychologist Seymour Adler, partner in the talent practice out of the New York, N.Y. office of Aon Hewitt, a global HR consultancy, maintains that “judging and rewarding employees individually” fosters a culture of individualism, which diminishes the likelihood of expressions of appreciation. He further describes heightened selfishness based on the mentality that “the more I contribute to co-workers getting awards, (the more) it may end up costing me.”

Adler also mentions that in this culture some people discount what co-workers do for them rather than emphasize joint contributions. “Women are much more likely to share the credit equally than men are,” he says. “There’s much about this in the recent literature. It’s very much hormonally driven.”

Still, we must consider the possibility that one source of the individualism permeating workplace culture may well be fueled by two generations. Baby boomers, champions of the cult of individualism, still set the tone in the workplace and retain influence over it. At the other end of the spectrum, many Millennials seek to stand out, in much the same way.

Adler further points out that virtual work “makes us a lot more like islands.” He thinks it possible that, contrary to most white-collar workers, first-responders and others teaming in difficult situations may take on the cast of families, “counting on each other, extending for one another and (showing) more appreciation.”

He indicates that some organizations aware of the problem are developing rewards for employees who know that gratitude has its place at work and express it to each other.

Hogan also finds “that a small number of deceitful people (8.6 percent) can have a tremendous impact on their co-workers (and that) most people (81 percent) ... don’t intend to behave dishonestly in order to get ahead.”

That this secret is just now coming to light in the public forum suggests the need for continued discussion.

Dr. Mildred L. Culp welcomes your questions at culp@workwise.net. © 2013 Passage Media.

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