Having a Voice but Not Being Heard: Conscientious Employees in Highly Structured Work Environments

5 mins

Organisations often invest significant amounts of resources in recruiting, selecting, develo...

Organisations often invest significant amounts of resources in recruiting, selecting, developing and training highly conscientious employees because these employees behave ethically and perform to a high standard. However, this effort might be undone unless a working environment allows them to express their natural conscientiousness and others to notice it. Highly centralised organisational structures might be crushing the inherent value of conscientious employees, a new study found.


study recently published in Human Resource Management (HRM)  examined why highly conscientious employees may not always be recognised as being ethical. Highly conscientious people are diligent, organised, detail-oriented, and viewed as upholding high ethical standards due to their propensity to engage in “voice”. Voice refers to the self-initiated behaviours that employees engage in that are either “promotive” (“doing good” through voicing suggestions that enhance performance) or “prohibitive” (preventing the “doing bad” through expressing concerns). 


According to Joseph Carpini, one of the study authors and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Western Australia Business School, ethicality (people behaving in ways that are accepted as “good” and “right” in a particular context) is important to study in today’s environment because recent reports show that about 49% of employees have observed some form of ethical violation in the workplace. “Even these small ethical violations can accumulate into large issues for individuals, organisations and society as a whole”, said Carpini.


Not all people are highly conscientious, so to create a work environment that encourages all employees to behave ethically, organisations use a “higher hierarchy of authority”, which is characterised by centralised decision-making, restricted employee job autonomy, and formalisation of policies and practices. 


“We know from research that human resource managers, practitioners, organisations, and we as academic advisors - we all like conscientious people. We also know that if organisations want to ensure ethical behaviour, they need to hire highly conscientious employees. But then organisations also strive to standardise everything and implement certain policies and formal procedures via work design practices to make sure that everyone behaves the same way. So we thought, what happens if you put highly conscientious people in such a restrictive work environment? How will they behave? And will others see them as ethical?”, said Aleksandra Luksyte, the lead author of the study and an Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia Business School.


When an organisation is characterised by a higher hierarchy of authority, everyone is expected to seek approval for decisions before acting. The study proposed that in such a highly formalised and standardised work context others might be less likely to notice the voice behaviours of conscientious employees, meaning that highly conscientious employees may not be perceived as ethical. Based on the data that the authors collected from 820 employees, their line managers and co-workers from a variety of different professions, the study confirmed this proposition - it found that a higher hierarchy of authority suppresses the extent to which others perceive the voice and subsequent ethicality of highly conscientious employees, and thus interferes with the inherent advantages of employee conscientiousness. 


“Even the best people with the most ethical predispositions may not be viewed as such in certain work environments, and this is why our study is important - because you have the same people that are viewed differently depending on their work context”, said Luksyte.


The study holds significant implications for HR practitioners in terms of challenges associated with balancing flexibility and formalisation, designing HR systems, policies and practices, decision-making in organisations, employee empowerment, and performance management systems.


“Our findings point to the importance of recognising that standardisation or the centrality of decision-making has potential costs. Organisations often invest significant amounts of resources in recruiting, selecting, developing and training highly conscientious employees. But as we show in this paper, investing those resources in a context that constrains the ability of those employees to enact those key characteristics that you recruited them for in the first place, actually undermines their ultimate contribution in your organisation. So this study is raising awareness of how we structure organisations and centralise decision-making”, said Carpini.


The study’s findings have important implications for how we design jobs and how line managers empower employees through, for example, enriched jobs, added Carpini. “When we enrich people's jobs, essentially what we're doing is decentralising part of that decision-making process or decreasing the hierarchy of authority, because those individuals are given control over how to engage in their work and make critical decisions related to their tasks. So when you have highly conscientious employees, it’s important to enrich their jobs. This will result in supervisors making better use of their time and limited resources - they will be spending less time making routine decisions because highly conscientious employees would be making these decisions themselves”, said Carpini.


In addition, many organisations are using perceptions of ethical behaviour as a component of their performance management system and appraisal process, and this study speaks directly to this context, said Carpini. “For example, in the military, promotion opportunities are determined in part by perceived ethicality. The military is a high hierarchy of authority, with very centralised decision-making processes. You would hope that conscientious employees would be recognised for their promotive voice, but actually, as our results suggest, this could potentially not be happening because the high hierarchy of authority diminishes that positive relationship with the perceptions of ethicality”, said Carpini.


Luksyte’s and Carpini’s co-authors were Sharon K. Parker, an ARC Laureate Fellow, Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design at Curtin University, Australia, and a John Curtin, Distinguished Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Director of the Future of Work Institute at Curtin University.


Contact Aleksandra Luksyte at alex.luksyte@uwa.edu.au


Read the full article here


Written by Jelena Petrovic, Knowledge Transfer Editor of HRM and Associate Professor at the University of Southampton Business School, j.petrovic@soton.ac.uk


HRM is a Financial Times Top 50 Business Journal published by Wiley.