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Why Workplace Espionage Occurs and How to Stop It

Why Workplace Espionage Occurs and How to Stop It


By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University

This is the second of two articles on workplace violence and espionage.

Like workplace violence, employee sabotage is also an ongoing problem in the workplace. According to the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA), “With roughly three million individuals cleared to access classified information and a multitude of ways to compromise it, determining who may pose a significant threat at a particular point in time is a monumental task.”

How do the concepts of organizational injustice and employee sabotage go together? It starts with organizational justice – how fairly an employee believes he or she is being treated in the workplace. These feelings are the employee’s perceptions and they can be broken down into four categories:

  • Distributive – fairness of outcomes (for example, women concerned that they are not being paid the same amount as men doing the same job)
  • Procedural – perceptions of processes that lead to outcomes (for example, each team member believes his or her voice is being heard and all team members have equal say without bias or favoritism)
  • Informational – accounts provided for justice-related events (for example, when a company communicates why certain actions are taking place, change management activities have to be explained to the employees so that they believe the plan is fair to all employees)
  • Interactional – perceptions of interactions and treatment (for example, when employee roles are downsized, all of the affected are treated alike and have been notified in the same manner with respect and dignity)

Employees want to believe their organization will be fair, moral and just. In essence, they want to know that the company will do the right thing.

If a person starts to believe he or she is losing control, feelings of being unjustly treated could arise. These negative emotions create psychological, physical and behavioral stressors that could lead to employee sabotage.

Many studies have assessed the relationship between employee sabotage and organizational justice:

  • Florida and Oregon researchers Maureen Ambrose, Mark A. Seabright and Marshall Schminke examined the relationship between injustice and workplace sabotage. Their findings suggest that:
    • Injustice is the most common cause of sabotage.
    • When the source of injustice was interactional, individuals were more likely to engage in retaliation. When the source of injustice was distributive, people were more likely to engage in equity restoration.
    • The source of injustice and the target of sabotage were generally the same, although this relationship was stronger for organizational targets than for individual targets.

Rather, they turn to the “dark side” to get the recognition they believe they deserve. If the organization does not provide that recognition, the perpetrator will seek to take it at the expense of the company. The thought is “they have to pay.”

How can HR professionals use INSDA’s behavioral model to assist in predicting the potential of employee espionage? Using the behavioral model introduced in the Intelligence Community could provide other industries with a starting point to reduce the number of incidents when an employee’s behavior has been detrimental to the organization.

Also, human resources professionals can assist in anti-espionage efforts by redesigning employee engagement efforts to increase employee satisfaction and participation levels. Workplace espionage can be minimized if the majority of employees believe they and their work are valued and respected by their employer.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.