Why are angry employees so bad for business? A new University of Arizona study shows that angry workers tend to behave unethically more often. While guilty workers tend to act more ethically.

A November, 2016 study in the Journal of Business Ethics shows just how important it is for bosses to tune in to how employees feel — especially when employees are angry.

Irritated or annoyed employees are more likely to behave unethically at work, even if that anger originated from home. And earlier research has shown that unethical behaviors in the workplace are a massive financial drain on companies in terms of poorer public relations, potential lawsuits, employee shrinkage and theft, lateness, safety issues and even corporate espionage.

On the other hand, when employees experience guilt, they are far less likely to act in unethical ways. It guilt motivates them to stay within ethical parameters.

Lead author Daphna Motro, a doctoral student at the UA’s Eller College of Management wrote, “At every level of an organization, every employee is experiencing emotion, so it’s universal, and emotions are really powerful — they can overtake you and make you do things you never thought you were capable of doing.”

Until recently, researchers have looked at ‘negative emotions’ as being quite similar. Yet not all negative emotions have a similar impact.  While anger and guilt are both negative emotions, they have very different effects on our behaviors, thoughts and how we perceive the world.

The reason for these differences, Motro stated, is how the two emotions differently impact cognition.

“We found that anger was associated with more impulsivity, which led to deviant behavior, since deviant behavior is often impulsive and not very carefully planned out,” Motro reported. “Guilt, on the other hand, is associated with more careful, deliberate processing — trying to think about what you’ve done wrong, how to fix it — and so it leads to less deviance.”

A critical finding, Motro said, is that emotions can impact performance even when the emotions are in no way related to the work environment.

“Anger can affect deviance in a completely different context, so if someone experiences anger and then they complete another task that is unassociated with the anger, there’s a spillover effect,” she stated.

The consequences of unethical behavior at work are far more than merely financial, Motro shared. There is a ripple effect to unethical behaviors in which the behaviors ripple outward and impact coworkers in a negative way.

“If you’re an employee and you’re working in an environment that’s uncomfortable or unethical, it leads to less work engagement, less job satisfaction and more turnover,” she said.

While guilty study participants behaved the most ethically, employers don’t want to use that as a reason to make their employees feel guilty, Motro cautioned.

“Too much guilt can be associated with shame, which is not a pleasant or positive emotional state,” Motto said.

Rather, supervisors need to be aware of employees’ emotions and act appropriately.

“Pay attention. An employee might be angry, and they might not be angry at you or anything that you’ve done specifically, but just pay careful attention,” Motro said. “Maybe tell them to take a short break and wait for them to cool down.” Or ask them how they are doing to engage them in conversation. In extreme cases, refer them to a high quality online anger management class.

Journal Reference:

1Daphna Motro, Lisa D. Ordóñez, Andrea Pittarello, David T. Welsh. Investigating the Effects of Anger and Guilt on Unethical Behavior: A Dual-Process Approach. Journal of Business Ethics, 2016; DOI: 10.1007/s10551-016-3337-x