Employees Are Most Likely To Cut Corners When They Lack Clear Goals and Feel Overworked

Armen Hareyan's picture

Job Environment

Fans of the television show "The Office" probably enjoy the dry wit and dubious scenarios the show portrays. In all likelihood, they also like the program because they see their own workplace reflected in the show.

While many workplaces don't go as far as the TV show, most people are familiar with firms that repeatedly attempt to alter strategy in the name of improved efficiency. According to new research from the Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis, that kind of environment is a sure-fire way to encourage employees to take short cuts.

"With overworked employees, and employees that endure multiple change initiatives, the workers get cynical," said Judi McLean Parks, the Reuben C. and Anne Carpenter Taylor Professor of Organizational Behavior. McLean Parks conducted her research with doctoral candidate Li Ma. "As a result, they produce work, but they don't care how they produce it."


"Especially in today's business environment, the drive to get things done is so strong that people will chose to reduce the quality of their work just to finish the job," said Ma. "Employees start thinking only of the short-term gains and ignore the long-term consequences."

The researchers said there are plenty of real-world examples that demonstrate their theory, from police officers making questionable arrests as part of a strategy to reduce crime, to journalists fabricating sources under the pressure to produce high-quality stories.

In one case, a China National Petroleum Corp. plant had an explosion that resulted in deaths, injuries and environment degradation. The company had been seeking higher profits, and decided to cut corners by over-weighting its production relative to safety and environmental concerns.

"Work overload and ambiguity about a company's strategy lead to worker cynicism and this cynicism influences employees to play fast and loose," Ma said. "The ends become more important than the means."

The research is based on a survey of 215 employees who were asked about their organizations. Those employees with low levels of cynicism did not display a tendency to cut corners; those who were overworked and whose firms kept revising its goals, were more inclined to pursue the most expedient way to get the work done