When Do Leaders Blame the Victims of Workplace Rudeness?

Topic(s): Counter-Productive Work Behavior, leadership, workplace deviance
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2019)
Article: How Leaders Perceive Employee Deviance: Blaming Victims While Excusing Favorites
Authors: D.H. Kluemper, S.G. Taylor, W.M. Bowler, M.N. Bing, J.R.B. Halbesleben
Reviewed by: Justin Upchurch

Workplace rudeness can have a negative impact on job performance, job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and turnover, ultimately affecting an organization’s bottom line. However, such behavior does not solely affect the victim and perpetrator of these actions. Rather, workplace rudeness can also negatively affect other “third-party” individuals such as colleagues and witnesses. Most studies of workplace rudeness have focused on the perspective of either the victim or the perpetrator. However, the researchers of this study (Kluemper et al., 2019) examine the extent to which rudeness contributes to the perceptions of one particularly important third-party group: leaders.


It is common for perpetrators of workplace rudeness to be perceived as interpersonally deviant. However, the authors take things a step further, proposing that victims of rude behavior may also be viewed by third parties, such as leaders, as partly responsible for their mistreatment and also perceived as interpersonally deviant.

Furthermore, the researchers also considered how two different factors affected the relationship between rudeness and leader perceptions of employee deviance. The two factors were (1) an employee’s job performance, and (2) quality of leader-member exchange, also called “LMX,” which is a way of assessing the quality of the relationship between a leader and a follower.


The researchers conducted four studies, two field studies and two laboratory studies. Combined, all four studies provided consistent evidence that leaders actually perceive the victims of workplace rudeness as perpetrators of the behavior. The researchers also found that poor performance mattered more to leaders’ perceptions of deviance than did experienced rudeness. In other words, deviance ratings were higher for low performers, regardless of the rudeness they experienced. In addition, all four studies revealed that favored employees who perpetuated rudeness were less likely to be seen as deviant by leaders, while unfavored employees were seen as more deviant when engaging in the same rude behavior.


The results of this study highlight the potential bias that leaders may have against unfavored employees—which extends as far as “blaming the victim.”  Even worse, the results of one study found that victim blaming may extend beyond mere perceptions of interpersonal deviance and eventually lead to downwardly biased job performance ratings.

Furthermore, this study suggests that when leaders excuse the deviant behavior of favored employees, other colleagues may emulate this behavior. These employees may view deviant behavior as a shortcut to gaining favor with a leader, instead of working to actually improve their performance. As a result, organizations should invest in leadership training that focuses on settling disputes between employees, as well as distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information when evaluating employee performance.


Kluemper, D. H., Taylor, S. G., Bowler, W. M., Bing, M. N., & Halbesleben, J. R. B. (2019). How leaders perceive employee deviance: Blaming victims while excusing favorites. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(7), 946-964.