Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Psychology. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 26 June 2022

Counterproductive Work Behaviorsfree

Counterproductive Work Behaviorsfree

  • Rosalind H. SearleRosalind H. SearleUniversity of Glasgow


Counterproductive work behaviors (CWBs) can be a significant activity within workplaces. Psychological study outlines different perspectives as to why these arise. Traditional views position CWB as an individual factor that enables their detection and nonselection. While deviance may emanate from one person, if left unchallenged it can rapidly spread throughout a workplace, altering the prevailing values, norms, and behaviors, and in the process becoming more enduring and toxic. Alternatively, the source of CWB can emerge outside the individual with a context that depletes the individual’s own regulatory resources. Those engaging in CWB can be unaware of their behaviors, with moral disengagement mechanisms used to reframe cognitions about their activities, which leads to more pervasive collective moral decline. Inhibiting CWB requires active processes of both individual self-reflection and self-regulation, which can be easily derailed in stress-inducing contexts, but are constrained through self-reflection and also social and legal sanctions. However, through the means of selecting and shaping their environments, fear of social sanction can be diminished, actively assisted by colluding networks of silence, that protect and even embolden instigators, further muting their targets, and driving those willing to report out of the organization. In these ways prevailing norms become distorted. Increasingly, a traditional binary notion of “good” and “bad” people is being challenged as oversimplistic, with research showing CWB as a complex process. Its antecedents can be individual, but they may also be situational, or the result of prior “good” deeds. The exploration of four distinct approaches offers very different insights into the antecedents, processes, and outcomes, and potential means to more effectively intervene, and inhibit their occurrence.


  • Organizational and Institutional Psychology


Study of work performance has distinguished four elements—those concerned with the work task, those facilitating workplace and social relations (citizenship), those focused on adaptation and innovation, that contrast with those that disrupt and divert work activities (counterproductive work behaviors, CWBs) (Koopmans et al., 2011; Rotundo & Sackett, 2002). This article focuses on CWB, which, because of its covert nature, can be difficult for organizations to accurately discern and quantify; such behaviors disrupt organizations, as well as incurring considerable direct and indirect costs through thefts, losses, and accidents, with consequent reputation-loss, sanctions, and fines. Estimates, for example, of the costs of global financial fraud are calculated to be equivalent to 6.05% of GDP, equating to some $5.127 trillion, removing an average of 3–6% from the average organization balance sheet (Button et al., 2009). In addition, longitudinal organizational study reveals the deleterious cycles CWB creates, exacerbating employee stress and contributing further to such behaviors (Meier & Spector, 2013). Their consequences can extend beyond organizational boundaries, with potentially adverse impacts on a wide range of stakeholders, including customer-service users, their families, communities, and societies. In this article, CWB is defined, incorporating consideration of the types of activity and their structure and measurement. Four distinct perspectives are explored: the individual, situational, socio-cognitive, and moral licensing, to advance our understanding, and through this to improve the means of their detection, and to indicate better ways to deter and ameliorate these activities.

What Are Counterproductive Behaviors?

Their Type and Structure

CWBs are voluntary actions that violate important organizational and social norms, threatening the well-being of organizations, their employees, and service-users (Robinson & Bennett, 1995). They are significant for employers because they divert attention from the achievement of organizational goals, but they can also threaten the organization’s long-term reputation and ultimate viability (Searle & Rice, 2020). CWBs can also lower psychological well-being and self-confidence, diminishing work and life satisfaction, and can impact health so as to reduce attendance and productivity and cause burnout (Fox et al., 2012; Hills & Joyce, 2013; O’Boyle et al., 2011; Samnani et al., 2014).

Prior meta-analytic study indicated CWB to be a distinct work behavior and negatively related to organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) (Dalal, 2005). However, research has revealed a more complex relationship between these two organizational dimensions, to which we return in our final section on moral licensing. Meta-analytic review confirms a general factor and various competing CWB taxonomies (Marcus et al., 2016). Research has dichotomized premeditated transgressive actions from those that are impulsive (Berkowitz, 1993), with considerable attention focused on discerning the different manifestations in CWB and their underlying structures. Critical review of prior study, however, suggests these different structural results may be an artifact of their discrete theoretical foundations (Marcus et al., 2016).

An area with greater consensus has been the distinguishing of CWB based on its target, separating organizationally directed actions (CWB-O) from those targeting an individual (CWB-I) (e.g., Robinson & Bennett, 1995). Further granularity has been added by the five-factor model that separates distinct CWB-O aspects, including organization-property destruction, job-specific shortcomings (production deviance), theft, and withdrawal, which are contrasted with interpersonally directed abuse (Spector et al., 2006). Subsequent meta-analytic scrutiny of these distinctions confirmed withdrawal as a more hidden and organizationally targeted deviance (Carpenter & Berry, 2017). “Production deviance,” which involves a failure to follow standard organizational and/or professional processes, could blur these target distinctions as it endangers the safety of others, but it is also likely to be directed at the organization. However, without insight into the perpetrator’s underlying motivations, their true target cannot be discerned. Marcus and colleagues’ (2016) meta-analytic study indicated stronger support for a far more granular 11-facet taxonomy (Gruys & Sackett, 2003) as opposed to other less complex designs. Gruys and Sackett’s (2003) 11-facet model expanded the previous binary organization and interpersonal target distinctions by adding the self, which is more apparent in behaviors such as drug or alcohol abuse (Marcus et al., 2016). These models are valuable in mapping transgressive behaviors, for instance in a large comparative study of health professionals’ CWB that revealed the dominance of production deviances, such as a failure to properly record medical examinations or follow correct procedures (Searle et al., 2017). An enduring question, however, concerns how far these taxonomies capture actual behaviors, with evidence showing their value in indicating more frequent forms of deviance, but omitting rare extreme incidences such as the death of an individual (Searle & Rice, 2020).

A long-running debate has considered the hierarchy and structure of these forms of transgression, with conceptual argument contending interpersonally directed aggression to be the most severe, because it transgresses social norms (Bennett & Robinson, 2000). Empirical study of reporting behaviors reveals these distinctions to be more academic, with significant events more regularly reported (Bowling et al., 2020). Analysis of the misconduct of health professionals indicates relative similarity to many forms of transgressions, except for five behaviors that show critically different recidivistic patterns when studied over time (Spittal et al., 2015, 2019). They found elevated risk levels among professionals who abuse drugs or alcohol, steal, sexually harass and abuse, or have mental health issues, and they revealed different remediation and sanctions to be required to reduce the risk and adequately protect patients. (Why these anomalies arise is considered in the moral licensing section.) Their work highlights the importance of early misconduct detection for its subsequent and more successful remediation, because these professionals are more amenable to correction in the earlier stages of their careers, before these activities become ingrained and habitual.


There has been considerable debate regarding the best way to measure CWB, with psychological study relying predominantly on self-report questionnaires, which are important in gathering data concerning less obvious activities, such as employee withdrawal. Collecting data on transgression is also improved through independent study, including anonymity, which can result in surprisingly candid reporting (Searle & Rice, 2018). The comparison of self-report data and that obtained by observations of others shows strong correlations, but that the former has incremental value by capturing a far wider range of transgressions than those seen by others (Berry et al., 2012). An important caveat, however, to the reliability of self-report has emerged from emotion and stress CWB studies, which reveal how individuals may not necessarily be aware of the way their behavior is declining, especially if they morally disengage (Fida et al., 2018). The reporting of others remains particularly important in the capture of severe transgressions (Bowling et al., 2020; Spittal et al., 2019). Four different perspectives on CWB are now reviewed.

Perpetrator Personality

Traditional approaches to understanding CWB have categorized “good” or “bad” employees, with considerable effort devoted to discerning the traits of “bad apples” (Kish-Gephart et al., 2010). Research into personality has notably contributed the “dark triad” (DT) of three facets: Machiavellianism, which involves a lack of concern for others, manipulating others to advance personal goals, and making individuals less normatively constrained in their social exchanges; narcissism, which includes attention-seeking and hypercompetitive behaviors that stem from the individual’s delusions of grandeur and inflated self-view; and psychopathy, which comprises antisocial behavior emanating from the disregard for societal norms (LeBreton et al., 2018). Meta-analytic study reveals DT as more prevalent among men than women, and negatively related to Big Five’s factor agreeableness, and Hexaco’s honesty-humility model (Muris et al., 2017). Other Big Five personality factors associated with interpersonally and organizationally directed deviance include low conscientious and emotional stability (Berry et al., 2007). Conversely, those with lower DT levels are more likely to report others’ CWB (Brock Baskin et al., 2020).

Scrutiny shows these DT factors are moderately correlated, with each significantly associated with CWB, with Machiavellianism and psychopathy also associated with reduced job performance (O’Boyle et al., 2012). Two contextual factors, however, are found to significantly moderate impacts: These include organizational culture, specifically cohesive workplaces that value duty and staff loyalty; and those in positions of authority. Closer examination indicates that while position of authority offers little constraint to those high in Machiavellianism, the adage about power corrupting is more evident among narcissists. Working in a more collective workplace may weaken CWB, but individual authority has fewer moderating consequences for those high in psychopathy. Psychopathy and Machiavellianism differ in their impacts on CWB through the mechanisms of moral disengagement, which is discussed in the social cognitive section (Egan et al., 2015). However, study of leaders with high levels of DT working in CWB-permissive contexts reveals the considerable challenges presented in working for someone who revels in the misfortunes of others (James et al., 2014).

Research has often failed to provide more granular exploration of DT, with studies of narcissism largely omitting scrutiny of the sub-facet, narcissistic vulnerability (LeBreton et al., 2018). Indeed, while CWB is usually associated with individual entitlement and exploitation of others, contrary results emerge for another narcissism facet, leadership authority (Grijalva & Newman, 2015). Similarly, the psychopathy facet, self-centered impulsive fearlessness, is rarely considered yet has revealed the associated organizational-directed CWB to be evident only among those with lower educational attainment and reduced interpersonal influence skills (Blickle & Schütte, 2017). By contrast, those with higher levels of education appear better able to manage their impulsivity, and therefore able to achieve more positive organizational outcomes. Paradoxically, results indicate that some level of DT may be important in effective leadership, but these benefits can rapidly unravel in less favorable situations, such as in response to psychological threat, physical exhaustion, cognitive overload, or stress (Kaiser et al., 2015). Critically, these unfavorable conditions can deplete individuals’ resources to manage and suppress their less desirable impulses.

In summary, while individual differences have long been used to understand CWB, their current measurement may be oversimplistic, drawing largely from cross-sectional self-report studies, and with limited value in effectively discerning those with malevolent intent (Muris et al., 2017). This perspective does provide an important theoretical insight, but its utilization by an employing organization may be more limited (Levashina & Campion, 2006; Paulhus et al., 2013). Critically, more nefarious individuals may simply be better at adapting their responses to recruiters’ requirements (Roulin & Bourdage, 2017). As a result, the application of personality to reducing CWB in organizations may be oversold, and indeed offer a false sense of confidence in being able to identify and deter those with high DT from entering a workplace (LeBreton et al., 2018). The fidelity between personality and distinct types of CWB is not apparent (Bragg & Bowling, 2018). Instead, it may be more valuable to consider CWB as an adaptive response (Dalal, 2005), an approach we now turn our attention to.

Situational Perspective

Seminal study of stress and coping (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) focused on environmental demands (i.e., stressors) that face an individual. Strain manifests itself in various psychological forms, including anxiety, depression, and burnout, but can also trigger behavioral responses, such as withdrawal or increased aggression. These interrelations are the foundation of stress-emotion studies of CWB (Fox et al., 2001). In contrast to the previous approach, here the antecedents of CWB are found to arise from work situations, with efforts to discern the factors that undermine or overwhelm individuals, usually some form of trigger event or more pervasive frustrating context (Malik et al., 2020; Parker et al., 2020). Critically, CWB is positioned as a reactive consequence, and therefore, it is likely to be a far more widespread organizational phenomenon (Spector & Fox, 2005).

Key situations that create tangible stressors include those with interpersonal conflict, high levels of organizational constraint, and excessive workload, as well as those that reduce resources, specifically those concerned with support and decision-autonomy (Chen & Spector, 1992; Fox et al., 2001; Hershcovis et al., 2007). These contexts have significant affective consequences, thwarting and frustrating employees, which then deplete their self-regulatory resources that are central to containing negative behaviors (Baumeister et al., 1998).

An important approach to the study of stress-inducing circumstances involves the mapping of different CWB pathways, to reveal their distinct emotional precursors. Increasingly, attention has converged on the significance of negative affect (Fida et al., 2018; Kiefer, 2005), especially job-related affect (Krishnakumar et al., 2017). Research has found different emotions associated with distinct CWB, for example linking anger and anxiety to incivility and sabotage behaviors, while upset and boredom are more likely to produce withdrawal (Spector et al., 2006). By contrast, the relationship between emotion and theft appears more varied, and linked to perceived distributive injustice (Wilkin & Connelly, 2015). A further significant aspect of these stress-emotion-CWB relations has revealed that by undertaking CWB, an individual can actually alleviate their negative feelings (Shoss et al., 2016). Such results suggest that the capture of current emotions, rather than assessing stress per se, might be important in the early detection of CWB hotspots. However, care needs to be taken with this, as studies also show how organizational attempts to monitor and control employees erode their trust and actually lead to citizenship being replaced by CWB (Jensen & Raver, 2012; Yost et al., 2019).

A significant moderator to these stress-emotion-CWB pathways is individual difference; for instance, research indicates that trait anger and gender are significant moderators for CWB and occur more frequently for men than for women (Fida et al., 2015b; Hershcovis et al., 2007).

Situational studies have revealed the emergence of more pervasive CWB spirals of decline, where one person’s CWB becomes another’s source of stress, and so on; these insights underscore why stressful environments are likely to have far more widespread levels of misconduct (Spector et al., 2006). Further research into these emotional pathways also shows how employees’ cognitions are reshaped, critically the de-coupling of negative affect from experiences, and in so doing offering an important psychological means to cope by allowing individuals to rationalize or diminish impact of their resultant deviant behaviors by assuaging their sense of guilt (Bandura, 1991). These more deviant cognitions can start very early in processes of workplace socialization and evolve through ongoing work experiences to create moral disengagement; Although this can reduce the strain individuals experience, it can also render the resultant deviant behaviors to be more benign (Fida et al., 2015a). (Moral disengagement is examined in more detail in the social cognitive section.) The reframing of cognitions can start as individual phenomena, but can soon become a pervasive self-serving view that is reinforced by others in a group, or across an entire workplace through their shared values, norms, and behavioral models (Rice & Searle, 2022). Studies highlight the critical role that leaders can play in this moral drift (Peng & Kim, 2020).

In summary, this perspective identifies the important role of affect in a process of CWB, positioning CWB to be an adaptive response to the diminishing context in which the individual is currently working. Significantly, this perspective enables a shift from simply focusing on an individual “bad apple” towards seeing CWB as a more widespread phenomenon, thus challenging as overly simplistic any individual scapegoating of CWB. Instead, attention is directed towards a wider stress-inducing context, highlighting how and why CWB can spread through a group, showing emotion not only to be an antecedent to CWB, but also a means for early detection of potential hotspots. However, in the absence of attention on the sources of stress, and better support to allow individuals to acquire more resources and better coping strategies, the potential of CWB remains; indeed, perversely by undertaking deviant actions, feelings of negative affect can be temporarily attenuated. Further, this perspective reveals a perverse coping response, with individuals cognitive reshaping their worlds, a phenomenon that can emerge surprisingly early in their employment enabling them to remain in these challenging workplaces. Next, a more complex approach is examined that combines some of the elements of the two previous perspectives.

Socio-Cognitive Perspective

Bandura’s (1986) seminal work on social cognitive theory provides one of the most significant advances in understanding deviant behavior. It adds insight into self-regulation and self-reflectiveness, through considering how moral agency is exercised, conceptualizing its proactive and inhibitory components. Proactive components are found in many occupations and evident in codes and standards, such as a doctor’s Hippocratic Oath, which enshrines that actions should not further harm patients (Searle & Rice, 2020). Inhibitory components arise from the internalization of moral standards (Bandura, 1986), and therefore can vary according to different influences, including from peers, or national cultures (Westerman et al., 2007). Bandura distinguishes between three inhibitors. First is self-evaluation, which restrains an individual through either inwardly noting and then avoiding actions that violate their personal standards, or through their subsequent correction following an experience of guilt, which is a critical moral emotion (Greenbaum et al., 2020). The other two inhibitors are sanctions that lie beyond the individual and operate as fear-based deterrents. Social sanctions curtail individuals’ activities through concern that others might disapprove and ostracize them, while legal sanctions focus on a fear of being caught and incurring punishment or fine.

However, Bandura (1986) offers an important psychological mechanism that helps individuals deactivate these aforementioned inhibitors, enabling them to cognitively dissociate their actions from these negative consequences. He develops moral disengagement as a dynamic means to reframe and neutralize deviant actions, by separating the behavior from its moral content through the use of four distinct “loci” that comprise eight moral disengagement mechanisms (Bandura, 1986, 2016). These processes significantly change how the event is regarded (Moore & Gino, 2013). Bandura implies a hierarchy for these different loci that he contends reveals the extent of their moral decline. Through these means an individual, in specific situations, can retain their moral commitment to ethical principles while concurrently performing norm-violating actions without feeling (at least temporarily) the more usual sense of conflict, guilt, shame, or even remorse. This dichotomization of the cognitive mechanisms offers insight into the associated cognitions, and through these important areas to focus on remediation and intervention.

The first locus is behavioral and distinguishes three cognitive rationalization processes that are designed to diminish the action’s immorality and to reduce the enormity of what is being done. Moral justification renders immoral conduct as defensible, often making it appear an entirely reasonable course of action. Euphemistic labeling deliberately sanitizes the situation, using transformational words that change the immoral into something more respectable, for instance a shift from “killing people” to “collateral damage.” Finally, advantageous comparison discounts the questionable behavior through making a comparison with another’s far worse actions.

Bandura’s (1986) second locus, agency, involves cognitively distorting perceptions of situational control and responsibility. This is done either through displacing responsibility, which pushes accountability for these actions onto some other decision-maker, often higher up the organization’s hierarchy, or by diffusing responsibility onto a wider group. The third locus focuses on the outcome, disregarding or downplaying it by distorting the consequences of actions, or through simple denial that any, or specifically any negative, outcome arose. The final locus shifts attention onto the target, blaming them by means of dehumanization, which justifies such treatment on the grounds of these targets as being unworthy of the usual consideration or making them somehow subhuman; alternatively, attribution of blame places culpability for what occurred on the victim, thus diminishing the perpetrator’s responsibility.

A further contribution from Bandura’s (1986, 2016) work is to advance understanding of the creation, perpetuation, and even exacerbation of deviance by situating the individual in a wider context, which includes attention to a dynamic interplay of three critical codeterminants: personal, behavioral, and environmental. In this way he explains why some forms of behavior differ, as noted earlier in the study of professional misconduct that distinguished a higher risk of recidivism in five areas (Spittal et al., 2019). Social cognitive theory also reveals the important reciprocal mechanisms that both motivate and regulate these transgressive actions (Bandura, 2016).

Focusing on the personal, Bandura (1986, 2016) outlines how for some individuals behaviors can become self-reinforcing, drawing on biological and intrapsychic influences, such as their competence, beliefs, emotional states, goals, attitudes, and values, to allow how the environment is perceived to be altered, and thus the behaviors that can be undertaken in it. He reveals how the treatment an individual receives from others is shaped by stereotypes, derived from facets beyond their personal control, including responses to their gender, age, and physical characteristics. For example, those in high social status occupations, such as doctors, are found to receive more deferential reactions from others compared to those in less prestigious occupations, such as nurses (Searle et al., 2017). Through these different treatments, the means of social regulation becomes diminished, especially for those in higher-status roles. As a result, individuals can perceive the same environment in very different ways, leading them to believe that the rules simply do not apply to them in the same way they do to others.

In focusing on the context, Bandura (2016) distinguishes how environmental influences arise. First, imposed environments physically and socioculturally constrain the individual; however, the aforementioned moral disengagement mechanisms allow individuals to psychologically alter their perceptions of these constraints, positioning their own actions to be the exception. Far greater agency arises through the second influence—selecting environments—with individuals deliberately selecting more favorable contexts, such as through their career or workplace choices. For example, the decision to undertake agency or locum work maximizes autonomy, while minimizing the means for others to detect; the perpetrator simply moves on to another workplace as concerns about their antics start to be raised (Searle et al., 2017).

Selection also extends to particular social groups. Picking where, and with whom, to have work breaks allows the means to select like-minded people who are less likely to question and challenge the individual’s actions, thus reducing the aforementioned social sanction that could help them check and self-regulate (Bandura, 2016). In this way these selected groups become important resources for perpetrators, enabling them to bolster their more permissive or deviant norms (Pina & Gannon, 2012). Selection also extends to the choice of target, deliberately choosing those who are more vulnerable, or whose resistance can be more easily overcome—specifically, those with less access to voice, lower status, or heightened economic dependency (O’Hare & O’Donohue, 1998); these targets are also likely to have less credibility as a witness, allowing the means to reduce legal sanctions (Easteal & Judd, 2008). High-status perpetrators are often protected, with organizational officials more reluctant to intervene (McDonald, 2012). Sadly, the resultant failure to even consider that something more nefarious might be occurring worsens the target’s plight; As a result, targets’ silence can appear acquiescent, because they simply perceive that nothing will be done if they raise their concerns (O’Leary-Kelly et al., 2009), or defensive, reflecting fears of subsequent reprisals from this more senior perpetrator (Hershcovis et al., 2021). Reinforced by the inaction of bystanders, perpetrators can, over time, perversely start to perceive that their wrongdoings are somehow sanctioned by those around them (Rice & Searle, 2022).

Finally, environments can be active and deliberately created, strategically constructed to better facilitate their perverse activities; they also intentionally foster networks designed to help them mitigate social and legal sanctions (Scott & Martin, 2006). Humor can provide an innocuous veneer to their antics, offering a means to reconstruct their actions as something more benign (Page et al., 2016). Using these combined strategies, perpetrators actively reduce social censure and their fear of ostracization, deliberately normalizing their deviant norms (Bandura, 2016). Through these accumulative means, networks of silence emerge that protect perpetrators and temporarily reduce reputational damage, enabling them not only to continue but even escalate their activities as they become more emboldened. Critically, deviant behaviors become cascaded as legitimate for others, insidiously altering workplace norms about both deviance and speak-up behaviors (Hershcovis et al., 2021). Over time, more CWB-tolerant cultures form (Russell & Oswald, 2016), particularly in contexts with high levels of competition and gendered power relations, where informal networks are particularly significant means of career advance (Hennekam & Bennett, 2017). In this way, those with chronic predispositions engineer spaces that permit them to act out their proclivities undeterred (Page & Pina, 2018), while those with opposing views feel increasingly marginalized and eventually have to choose whether to collude by remaining silent or to leave the organization. The resultant context becomes significantly diminished in the operation and effectiveness of social sanction, and also reduced in the means to help these individuals self-regulate. Therefore, over time, only the fear of legal sanction remains to inhibit a perpetrator.

In summary, socio-cognitive theory indicates key mechanisms that operate to both create and inhibit CWB. Bandura (1986, 2016) outlines critical interwoven codeterminants, including individual, behavior, and environment, that comprise distinct social and cognitive mechanisms. This approach is important, as it identifies why some forms of behavior may for some individuals become compelling. It explains why sexual harassment and theft are higher-risk CWBs (Spittal et al., 2019). It outlines, too, the value of a more comprehensive approach in how to detect, deter, and ameliorate CWB in organizations. Next, the separation between OCB and CWB is challenged, to reveal their relationship as more complex than first apparent.

Relations of OCB and CWB—Moral-Licensing Perspective

In the section defining CWB, it was positioned as the opposite of organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) (e.g., Dalal, 2005; Sackett, 2002). However, closer scrutiny suggests such findings may be an artifact of study design, because these two behaviors are rarely measured together (Fox et al., 2012). Extant studies that include both of these discretionary behaviors reveal as overly simplistic a dichotomizing of “good” or “bad” people, and instead explore a significant temporal sequencing in their occurrence for individuals, to show that prosocial citizenship can preceding subsequent CWB (Bolino & Klotz, 2015; Griep et al., 2021; Loi et al., 2020). Explanations of why such divergent behaviors should be enacted by the same individual offer intriguing insights that positions CWB as an unintended consequence of mandating good behavior (Klotz & Bolino, 2013).

Research has indicated some danger in making people feel compelled (Bolino et al., 2013) or obliged (Organ et al., 2006) to undertake OCB, rather than having it as something they can choose to do for themselves. Removing an individual’s agency in the decision to act positively and altruistically can lead to unintended consequences, specifically providing a means to perceive that they are psychologically entitled to offset these “good” deeds against some subsequent “bad” activity.

Moral-licensing theory (Merritt et al., 2010; Miller & Effron, 2010) contends that by undertaking “good” actions, individuals acquire the psychological basis for their subsequent CWB, or to express their morally problematic attitudes. The theory outlines two important mechanisms. First, moral credits involve previously acquired moral capital derived through undertaking “good” deeds being offset against subsequent amoral actions. This acquired moral license is not domain-specific, with credits acquired in one domain being offset by actions in another; it also licenses both interpersonally and organizationally directed transgressions (Yam et al., 2017). While people can vary in the lower level of their “moral account,” through their re-crediting efforts they can psychologically avoid consequent threats to their moral self-image (Zhong & Liljenquist, 2006); instead, they can retain their self-identity of being a “good” person.

Through the second mechanism, moral credentials, individuals can finesse their image as a moral person who does good (Miller & Effron, 2010). The historical precedent created by their prior good deeds enables the means to position current, and future, morally ambiguous actions to be construed as more acceptable. In this way, a “good” person is regarded as not acting badly, so the actions they take must therefore not be bad. As a result, dubious activities become transformed by virtue of their historically derived more positive self-image. Equally, those with prior “bad” deeds may struggle to have their subsequent good actions confirmed. Indeed, through this means those with “good” deeds are granted a “sense of entitlement to some moral laxity” (Zhong et al., 2009, p. 78). In this way, for instance, organizationally encouraged volunteering could provide a credit that entitles an individual latitude to undertake subsequent CWB (Loi et al., 2020).

Perceived organizational justice offers an important way to reduce the impact of moral licensing (Loi et al., 2020). In contexts with low organizational justice, employees can feel entitled, even justified, to engage in transgressive actions, by regarding their responses to be less morally discrediting (Klotz & Bolino, 2013). In this way, an organization with unequitable pay (low distributive and procedural justice) enables employees to feel justified in “taking back,” rather than perceiving these actions as simply stealing (Greenberg, 2002). Yet people do not always seek revenge or payback, with moral identity (Aquino & Reed, 2002) an important moderator to individuals’ injustice reactions. Extending insight into this further moral dimension adds greater nuance to explain why victims, and also observers of injustices, can seek revenge (Barclay et al., 2014). Such study also identifies the significant role of norms regarding moral behaviors. Thus, while workplaces can be important contexts to study CWB due to the accumulation of perceived breaches to employees’ psychological contracts (Griep & Vantilborgh, 2018), they are also important in exploring restraint and how moral identity can alter responses to injustice (Skarlicki et al., 2016). Future study can add greater fidelity by extending how justice is measured to enable delineation of the consequences of different forms of injustice (Loi et al., 2020). To date, studies have been confirmed to examination of the importance of fair processes and rewarding ethical actions.

Further, diary-based study that has examined moral-licensing effects has indicated how the significant consequences of psychological entitlement can be diminished through the use of temporal reframing, which repositions individuals’ attention on their future actions, rather than their past behavior (Griep et al., 2021); Therefore, rather than individuals seeing a quid pro quo from their past good deeds in licensing current CWB, it focuses on their future good deeds to alter self-serving intentions. This highlights how as social beings our moral compasses can be led adrift, distorted by our own individual and shared biases and bounded cognitions (Moore & Gino, 2013). A further temporal perspective that has received limited investigation arises where societal attitudes have evolved, or fresh critical insight is produced which requires revisiting of prior events, necessitating that individuals and society review again the morality of their behaviors as they become aware of the unintended consequences (Hershcovis et al., 2021; Rice & Searle, 2022). In this way moral compasses need regular checking and review (Moore & Gino, 2013).

In summary, this approach challenges as oversimplistic a dichotomy of “good” and “bad” individuals and reveals the dangers of prior “good” deeds in placing individuals beyond suspicion. Instead, it highlights the value of including a wider range of behaviors in studies, and the importance of considering moral identity along with temporal sequencing of actions. It reveals further individual difference facets and the cognitive dimensions that are significant to CWB, but also new approaches to moderate these outcomes. Moral-licensing theory also illuminates dangers in certain laudable occupations, such as being priests or doctors, which create moral credit and credentials that can then psychologically facilitate subsequent CWB. This approach outlines the powerful role of identity and the veneer of the “good person” in allowing individuals the means to avoid critically appraising their current behavior and its motivations. It highlights a value to reexamine our moral compasses, and to consider our current and future activities afresh.


This article has drawn attention to the considerable direct and indirect implications of CWB for individuals, organizations and society. Through exploring four perspectives, we revealed divergent lenses as to how CWB emerge, and different approaches to their detection and measurement, along with the means to contain, deter, and ameliorate them. Through these contrasting perspectives, some of the complex interactions of individual difference dimensions, but also behaviors, and their context emerge. It also charts important shifts in our understanding to reveal how we can all be capable of these activities, and the significance of further study of the temporal perspective to advancing our current understanding and study of this important topic.