Why singling out an Employee of the Month may backfire

New UB School of Management research reveals how envy can lead to absenteeism and turnover at work

One employee celebrates while another worker looks on jealously.

Release Date: April 11, 2022

Danielle Tussing headshot.
“Managers should avoid situations that easily trigger social comparisons, like designating an Employee of the Month, giving certain employees better assignments or showing favoritism. ”
University at Buffalo School of Management

BUFFALO, N.Y. — When employees who strive to be team players feel envious of their co-workers, they may withdraw, missing work or even leaving the organization altogether, according to new research from the University at Buffalo School of Management.

By contrast, the study — forthcoming in the Journal of Organizational Behavior — found that workers who are more motivated by achievement and personal goals tend to miss fewer days when they feel jealous of their colleagues.

“Envy is inevitable in many social situations, including the workplace — but research typically focuses on how it triggers some people to take action, for example, by sabotaging another employee,” says lead author Danielle Tussing, PhD, assistant professor of organization and human resources in the UB School of Management. “Our study looks at the opposite effect — instances when envy causes people to disengage and avoid the situation that’s causing them pain.”

Tussing and her co-authors surveyed more than 670 employees from 23 supermarket locations in Indonesia. Using their confidential responses, the researchers measured their feelings of envy, as well as their motivations across three dimensions: communion (or harmony with co-workers), achievement and status.

Then, three months later, the researchers analyzed data supplied by the store’s HR department to count each employee’s voluntary absences and assess overall turnover.

For workers who are highly motivated by teamwork and camaraderie, the study found they were absent more often — and more likely to quit — when they reported feelings of envy.

Conversely, when employees who are more achievement-oriented felt envious of their colleagues, they were less likely to miss work or leave the company, perhaps because their jealousy pushed them to work harder on self-improvement.

Tussing says her research presents an important lesson for organizations with team-based cultures.

“Managers should avoid situations that easily trigger social comparisons, like designating an Employee of the Month, giving certain employees better assignments or showing favoritism,” Tussing says. “Instead, look for opportunities to reward the entire team and emphasize collective goals, so that employees see their co-workers’ success as their own.”

Tussing’s co-authors on the paper were Andreas Wihler, PhD, associate professor of management in the University of Exeter Business School; Timothy V. Astandu, PhD, co-founder and CEO of Populix; and Jochen I. Menges, PhD, professor and chair of human resource management and leadership in the University of Zurich.

The UB School of Management is recognized for its emphasis on real-world learning, community and economic impact, and the global perspective of its faculty, students and alumni. The school also has been ranked by Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes and U.S. News & World Report for the quality of its programs and the return on investment it provides its graduates. For more information about the UB School of Management, visit management.buffalo.edu.

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School of Management