Remember the panic about “quiet quitting” in the fall of 2022? That’s when legions of fed-up, burned-out post-pandemic workers decided they weren’t going to leave their jobs but they also weren’t going above and beyond the prescribed duties of their positions.
There were headlines in The New York Times. The Washington Post, CNN, Harvard Business Review and even Psychology Today.
And now this: the quiet quitters might be right.
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That’s the conclusion of a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University whose research made it into the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. The title of his paper? “Loyal Workers Are Selectively And Ironically Targeted For Exploitation.”
What the Study Found
The bottom line from Matthew Stanley, a postdoctoral researcher at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business? Workers making the extra effort on the job usually don’t get anything in exchange except more work.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” Stanley told Duke Today. “Loyal workers tend to get picked out for exploitation. And then when they do something that’s exploitative, they end up getting a boost in their reputation as a loyal worker, making them more likely to get picked out in the future.”
In other words, the more unpaid work a staffer took on, the more likely the manager was to perceive them as being loyal, and subsequently reward them with … more unpaid work.
To conduct the study, Stanley and his fellow researchers created a fictional 29-year-old worker named John. Stanley then had 1,400 managers who read that times were tight at John’s company and managers were ordered to limit their costs. The managers then were asked to decide how willing they’d be to give John extra unpaid work.
If the managers were informed that John was a loyal worker, he always got stuck with extra work but no extra pay. When managers were told John took on extra unpaid tasks, they characterized him as loyal. And, if the managers were given letters of recommendation describing John as loyal they were once again more willing to give him extra compared to other workers.
Stanley found that the managers believed that loyalty came with a duty to perform more unpaid work.
Fixing the Problem
Fixing the problem isn’t a matter of encouraging workers to avoid being loyal because that loyalty can come with real benefits at work. Instead, he suggested that it might be a matter of educating managers about these “ethical blind spots” to create awareness. Stanley also suggested creating institutional standards to prevent exploiting those workers who simply are more agreeable than others.
I don’t want to suggest that the takeaway of the paper is to not be loyal to anybody because it just leads to disaster,” Stanley told Duke Today. “We value people who are loyal. We think about them in positive terms. They get awarded often. It’s not just the negative side. It’s really tricky and complex.”
Stanley conducted the experiments with Chris Neck, Ph.D. and Chris Neck, father-and-son researchers at Arizona State University and West Virginia University, respectively. The results were published online on Jan. 6 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Being loyal at work can have many benefits but it can also lead managers to dump extra unpaid work on the most loyal workers. Research from Duke University found that the more unpaid work an employee performed, the more they were perceived as loyal, resulting in managers assigning them more unpaid work.
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