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When Helping Hurts

SIOP Members Discuss the Pitfalls of Organizational Citizenship Behavior
By Stephany Schings, Communications Manager
Organizational citizenship behavior has long been recognized for its positive effects on employees and organizations, but SIOP members’ research shows that in some cases helping may actually hurt.
Organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) is defined as discretionary behavior that is not formally required by the organization yet contributes to the organization’s success.
Much of the research on organizational citizenship behavior over the last few decades has focused on its benefits to organizations, said SIOP Member Diane M. Bergeron, assistant professor in the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. However, very little research has examined the potentially harmful impact OCB can have on the employees who perform them.
“OCB has really been researched regarding its positive effects in organizations and for employees,” Bergeron said. 
But Bergeron and several other members of SIOP say OCB appears to have negative effects in certain contexts. According to the research she performed with fellow SIOP Members Abbie J. Shipp (Texas A&M University) and Benson Rosen (University of North Carolina), as well as Stacie A. Furst (University of Cincinnati), engaging in OCB in certain types of organizations can actually have a negative effect on advancement and subsequent salary increases for employees.
Bergeron will present her group’s research paper “Career Outcomes and Organizational Citizenship Behavior: The Cost of Being a Good Citizen” during the symposium “The Dangers of Helping: When OCB Can Hurt Employees” at the 25th Annual SIOP Conference ,April 8-10 in Atlanta.

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“The Dangers of Helping: When OCB Can Hurt Employees” is chaired by SIOP Member Linn Van Dyne, a professor at the Eli Broad Graduate School of Management at Michigan State University, and David T. Wagner, assistant professor of OBHR at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at Singapore Management University. Both are also authors of one of the papers to be presented in the forum. Other symposium participants include SIOP Members Matthias Spitzmuller, Adam Grant, Jaron Harvey, Tjai M. Nielsen, Daniel G. Bachrach, Patrick P. McHugh, and Peter A. Bamberger (discussant),as well as Mark C. Bolino.
The symposium will include four papers presenting field and laboratory studies that illustrate conditions under which OCB can have harmful consequences for employees who engage in them.
One of those conditions includes the type of assessment system the organization uses, Bergeron said. First, her group explains in their paper, employees have an option of participating in two different types of job behavior—organizational citizenship behavior or task behavior.
“Task behavior is very specific to someone’s job,” Bergeron explained. “So, for example, in a consulting firm, task behavior would include working with a client. If you are a teacher, it would be teaching classes. It’s the core part of the job and it differs by job. With regard to OCB, these are behaviors that are similar across jobs. It includes many behaviors that go above and beyond what you are required to do. It might include helping others or sharing information. Generally it’s all those helping behaviors that are not mandatory.”
Bergeron explained that those two types of behavior can take place in one of two types of contexts: a workplace with an outcome-based control system or one with a behavior-based control system.
“The outcome-based control system refers to basically how you are assessed on the tangibles in your job,” she explained. “If you are in an outcome-based system, it is measuring something that has an objective measure of your job. It might be billable hours or sales of each employee. In research universities, for academics, it’s the number of publications.”
However, behavior-based systems are much more common, Bergeron said.
“These systems measure certain categories of behaviors that help you do your job well,” she explained. “For an HR person, what are the outcomes? You don’t have sales to add up or billable hours. It’s difficult to measure the tangible outcomes of someone in that type of job. For people in marketing, HR, a lot of the other areas, you have to measure behaviors.”
Bergeron explained that much of the previous research on OCB, which generally showed positive effects of OCB, focused on behavior-based systems, but she had experiences in her professional life that suggested OCB may be related to negative effects for individuals in other types of organizations.
“That’s how I started getting interested in this topic,” she said. “I was working at Pfizer and there were five practice leaders working there and one was always helping others and going above and beyond what was required. When it came time for promotions, the other four people were promoted and she was not. So I wondered about the negative impact of OCB and thought, ‘well, what does that say about the usefulness of performance evaluations and whether or not they are linked to career outcomes such as promotion or salary?’”
To explore any negative effects OCB may have, the group focused on the context of these outcome-based systems.
Using data from an organization with an outcome-based control system—a sample of almost 4,000 employees in a professional services firm—Bergeron and the rest of the group hypothesized that results would show evidence of a “cost” to engaging in OCB. What their results indicated was that time spent on OCB resulted in less time spent on task behavior (i.e., billable hours). Further, results indicated that, although task behavior and OCB both positively contributed to performance evaluations, task behavior was much more important than OCB. Most interesting were the results for rate of career advancement (i.e., speed in advancing up the hierarchy). Results showed that engaging in more task behavior increased the rate of advancement whereas engaging in OCB decreased rate of advancement.
Bergeron said the findings impact both employees and organizations. Specifically, they highlight that there may be a cost for employees who engage in OCB in outcome-based control systems. Because increases in compensation are associated with promotions rather than continued good performance in the same position, having fewer promotions (i.e., slower advancement) may result in less total compensation over the course of a career.
Bergeron said the findings also suggest that positive performance appraisals may have a “pacifying effect” on employees and may not translate into longer term career outcomes.
“We think maybe there is a pacification effect for employees where it seems like you are doing well because you are getting a good evaluation but where you aren’t seeing the tangibles such as salary increases or promotions,” she added. “There is a lagged effect between performance evaluations and promotion, so you may not realize what is happening until further into your career.”
Because of this, organizations could be sending a mixed signal, Bergeron explained.
“It then begs the question, ‘is it a different set of factors that influence performance evaluations versus the set of factors that influence compensation or career advancement?’” she added. “So it makes it seem that performance evaluations are not as closely linked to these tangible aspects of the job—salary, advancement—as we would want them to be.”
Bergeron said this research is only a first step.
“Yes, maybe there is a short-term cost, but I still think that over the long term, those (OCB) favors that you do for other people come back to you in other ways,” she said.
More research is needed in order to determine those long-term effects, Bergeron added.
“Maybe in the long run OCB isn’t detrimental, but in some organizations where you have a limited time to advance, trying to get tenure in a university, for example, or trying to make partner in a law or consulting firm, you may never get that chance. More research needs to be done in order to measure all of these long and short-term effects.”

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