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When corporate citizenship backfires on the company

Ever wondered why a colleague goes the extra mile to do additional work to help others, or signs up regularly for corporate events like charity runs? One might assume that such corporate citizenship is from the goodness of his heart.

Yet some people engage in good corporate behaviour not for altruistic reasons, but because they feel compelled to do so. They view it as a workplace norm, or they want to toe the line and avoid punishment, or their job responsibilities have evolved over time to include this.

Does such "pressured" behaviour have negative consequences even though it involves corporate good deeds?

Studies show that interest and engagement in corporate citizenship are less sustainable when they are demanded from people. The end result is a quiet resistance. But the negative consequences do not just stop there.

A series of studies collaborated between the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School, Oregon State University, the University of Washington and Huazhong University of Science and Technology, China, examined 884 employees. We measured their engagement in corporate citizenship activities, reasons for their involvement, and their sense of psychological entitlement as well as extent of deviant behaviour.

When people see their past good deeds as raising their moral credentials, they begin not to construe subsequent deviant behaviour they engage in as bad. Instead, they perceive their enhanced credentials as entitling them to behave in bad ways without discrediting themselves. In other words, they become bad apples.

We asked employees how much they agreed to five reasons that potentially motivated them to be involved in corporate citizenship activities. For instance, they indicated how much they were involved in these activities because they would get in trouble if they did not participate. Employees who truly volunteered in citizenship activities would disagree with these reasons, while those who were pressured to engage in them would tend to agree.

To measure psychological entitlement, we used a well-tested four-item scale that included the extent to which employees agreed that they demand the best because they are worth it. The higher the score, the more entitled they were.

Deviant behaviours were measured using a 19-item scale. For instance, employees self-reported the extent to which they made fun of someone at work or had taken property from work without permission. Seven items measured interpersonal deviance, while 12 assessed organisational deviance.

With these responses, we could assess the relationship between these behaviours, motivation and entitlement. We found that employees pressured into corporate citizenship develop a sense of entitlement more so than those who voluntarily took part. They are more likely to feel that since they are providing services beyond their job requirements, they have earned more than what is offered by the firm. In other words, psychologically, they feel entitled to some form of recompense from the firm.

A LICENCE TO BE BAD

Next, as corporate good deeds have a strong moral component, this sense of entitlement has an adverse consequence - employees begin to feel that the corporate good deeds they have been pressured into doing offer a licence for future bad deeds.

When people see their past good deeds as raising their moral credentials, they begin not to construe subsequent deviant behaviour they engage in as bad. Instead, they perceive their enhanced credentials as entitling them to behave in bad ways without discrediting themselves. In other words, they become bad apples.

These findings are consistent with past studies on entitlement. Entitled individuals are likely to act selfishly, be disrespectful and blame others more than themselves when things go wrong.

In our study, we observed that pressured corporate citizens are more likely to make fun of colleagues and curse them. The deviant behaviours also extended to taking property from work without permission and neglecting to follow managers' instructions. Some participants even cheated to gain extra compensation.

Such behaviour persisted even after taking into account personality traits. Regardless of whether people were irritable or easy-going, as long as they were externally motivated to engage in corporate citizenship behaviour, they displayed more such deviant behaviour because of a sense of entitlement. This went beyond the workplace, with personal incivility also observed to be higher towards people outside the organisation. Pressured employees would curse and say hurtful things to family and friends.

How can organisations encourage corporate citizenship without risking deviant behaviour?

While emphasising ethical standards required of employees and monitoring their behaviour is one recourse, a more effective way is to cultivate a mindset that values and emphasises the intrinsic value of corporate citizenship.

Crafting and narrating stories of employees who enjoy being a corporate citizen, not for the sake of bonuses but for the sheer joy of helping or being supportive, is one way. Top management should walk the talk by demonstrating corporate citizenship without being compensated for doing so.

They should also save monetary rewards for work performance, and encourage informal rewards such as public recognition for exemplary citizenship behaviour. Companies should also scrutinise whether they had inadvertently communicated that citizenship behaviour is tied to financial rewards. For example, were there e-mail messages linking citizenship behaviour with bonuses? If so, companies should recast such messages to emphasise the intrinsic rewards.

The implementation of such intrinsic values should be company-wide and not in just one division, so that the corporate culture becomes one of doing good for the sake of doing good - and not for financial rewards.

•The writer is an assistant professor of management and organisation at National University of Singapore Business School.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 10, 2016, with the headline 'When corporate citizenship backfires on the company'. Print Edition | Subscribe