Illegitimate Tasks – You Want Me to do What!?

Topic: Counterproductive Work Behavior
Publication: Applied Psychology: An International Review (JAN 2010)
Article: Illegitimate tasks and counterproductive work behavior
Authors: N.K. Semmer, F. Tschan, L.L. Meier, S. Facchin, & N. Jacobshagen
Reviewed By: Benjamin Granger

The research on counterproductive work behavior (CWB) suggests that it often represents a form of retaliation in response to unfairness. In other words, when employees perceive unfairness in the workplace, they get even by engaging in behaviors that damage the organization or its employees.

Extending this line of research, Semmer and colleagues (2010) uncovered an interesting predictor to CWB: illegitimate tasks. Illegitimate tasks are tasks that are assigned to employees that undermine their professional identities. That is, employees have jobs and professions that involve a set of “normal” or “typical” tasks. This also implies that some tasks and/or duties should not be expected of certain employees (e.g., assigning a medical doctor to repair an air conditioner).  According to Semmer et al., the assignment of illegitimate tasks (either unreasonable or unnecessary tasks), can undermine employees’ professional (and perhaps social) identities and possibly lead to CWB. As expected, Semmer et al. found that when employees perceive that they are  assigned illegitimate tasks at work they are more likely to engage in CWBs targeted toward organizational members or the organization itself.

Clearly, managers should be careful when delegating tasks to certain employees. If employees view these work assignments as unreasonable or unnecessary given their profession, then they will be more likely to engage in CWBs.

Finally, since many supervisors are focused on the big picture (i.e., the overall goals of the organizational unit) they may simply be unaware that this phenomenon takes place. Clearly then, it is important to communicate to managers that employees do appraise tasks as being  legitimate/illegitimate which can potentially lead to counter productive behaviors. Nevertheless, some tasks MUST be completed. Semmer et al. suggest that if supervisors demonstrate their willingness to complete such tasks, then their employees may be less likely to view them as illegitimate.

Semmer, N.K., Tschan, F., Meier, L.L, Facchin, S, & Jacobshagen, N. (2010). Illegitimate tasks and counterproductive work behavior. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 59(1), 70-96.