How Will Employees Respond to Mistreatment of Coworkers?

Have you ever noticed a coworker being mistreated by someone else in the organization, be it peer, subordinate or superior? What actions did you take because of what you witnessed? According to O’Reilly and Aquino you have several choices. You could rally against the perpetrator, going to the superior to explain what happened. You also have the option of punishing the offender on your own, vigilante style. There is also the possibility that you could comfort the victim or you could just ignore the situation. The authors propose that your actions are determined by your moral identity, the perception of power, and your belief in your organization’s justice system.


A moral identity is how you view yourself morally. Do you think you are a moral person? If you do think you are a moral person, is that one of your core values, something that you perceive as an important aspect of you. If so, you will be more likely to take action against the perpetrator than if you don’t think of yourself as a moral person. The more important you consider morality as a core aspect of yourself, the more likely you are to take action. Power is also an important aspect in taking action against coworker mistreatment.

Position power and resource power both play a role in your decision. Position power is part of the traditional hierarchy of your organization. Do you have any power over the perpetrator? Resource power is not determined by the hierarchy of the organization but is more defined by your social network, political skill, or even time. If you have neither position nor resource power, you are likely not to take action, but if you have either you likely will take action.


So what part of mistreatment in the workplace and employees’ response can an organization control? Their organizational justice system. If employees perceive the justice system is fair and “punishes” people who have purposefully done wrong things while not punishing employees who report mistreatment, then an employee will report mistreatment. However, if an employee does not believe in the organizational justice system, they will act on their own to address the mistreatment, ignore it, or go outside the organization to alleviate the problem. All three of those scenarios reflect badly on an organization, giving the appearance they cannot handle their own problem, and in today’s business world, perception is important.


O’Reilly, J., & Aquino, K. (2011). A model of third parties’ morally motivated responses to mistreatment in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 36(3), 526-543.

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