Volume 7, Number 1, 1997

On Research

Trying to look bad at work

Thomas Becker, assistant professor of business administration, recalls being puzzled when a clerical worker demonstrated her competence for him, but refused to do so for others.

"Employees usually try to put their best foot forward," says Becker, who wasn't certain he understood why anyone would try to look bad.

He and colleague Scott Martin discussed the behavior and concluded that workers purposely look bad for the same reason that they try to look good-to achieve a goal. Finding little information on "the management of poor impressions" in organizations, they decided to conduct their own research.

"I was interested specifically in people who have what it takes to do the job well, but, for whatever reasons, won't do it well," Becker says.

Becker and Martin's criteria for someone engaging in "poor impression management" was that it had to be done knowingly and specifically to impress either a person or group to achieve a goal.

They conducted two studies.

The first was a pilot study of 36 business students who were asked to give real-life examples of someone who deliberately tried to look bad on the job. Becker and Martin say they were surprised to find that most could relate stories of coworkers who tried to give a bad impression through:

"Almost everybody we asked gave us at least one situation," Becker says. "In some instances, people remembered colleagues who complained about their workload to get a raise. At other times, people wanted to be fired or transferred. Sometimes, individuals or groups wanted to make their manager look bad."

Once the behavior pattern was narrowed down to methods and motives, the researchers conducted a primary study using 162 business students in four classes, all of whom were either holding jobs or who had held jobs in the past. Half the sample had held management positions and been full-time employees for almost three years. They represented a variety of occupations, including electrical engineers, accounting clerks, paralegals, technicians, dock workers, office supervisors, secretaries, insurance agents, food servers, accountants, sales managers, general office workers, opticians and finance officers.

Becker and Martin found that 91 percent said they had worked with people they believed were managing poor impressions for the motives ascribed and were using the methods revealed in the pilot study.

In an article published in the Academy of Management Journal, Becker and Martin concluded that, while there is evidence to indicate that some workers do intentionally try to look bad at work, further study needs to be done since "high levels of managing poor impressions may be symptomatic of dysfunctional organizational cultures.

"Even in organizations in which the management of poor impressions has a low base rate, intentionally looking bad may have important consequences," the researchers said, including the inequitable treatment of employees, increased health-care costs, decreased customer satisfaction and decreased individual and organizational effectiveness.

Becker says people may be motivated to look bad when the organizational appeal system isn't credible. "When you know people are penalized for using the appeal system, you look for more subtle methods of voicing your discontent."

Intentionally looking bad at work, he says, is more likely to occur when there is distrust between employees and management and when leaders don't have communication skills or integrity in dealing with workers. Becker also points out that employees with low self-esteem or low need for achievement also may be more inclined to engage in such behavior.

"When the issue is trying to look bad at work, it's probably more a function of an organizational problem rather than an individual one, " Becker says.

-Barbara Garrison