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Workplace vigilantes can breed fear and anxiety, B.C. study finds

Workplace vigilantes seek their own forms of organizational justice in response to perceived social violations by others, a UBC study says.
Workers who set themselves up as punishers of perceived workplaces violations can be a problem, states a new study titled The Vigilante Identity and Organizations.

Vigilante workers who take perceived workplace issues into their own hands can pose challenges to businesses and workplaces, according to a recent study.

The study, titled The Vigilante Identity and Organizations and co-authored by UBC Sauder School of Business professor Karl Aquino with international colleagues, found people with a vigilante identity often perceive themselves to be the kind of individuals who monitor their environment for signs of norm violations.

“Vigilantism can damage workplace culture,” Aquino said. “If you think you’re constantly under surveillance for all the things you might do wrong, it creates anxiety and fear. Being a vigilante’s target can cause economic, reputational and psychological harm.”

As such, the team developed its Vigilante Identity Scale (VIS) to assess common behavioural tendencies of workers likely to seek their own forms of organizational justice in response to social violations.

The work found such employees tend to be hypervigilant and willing to take it upon themselves to informally punish others despite lacking authority to do so. According to the study, these employees view themselves as morally superior and wish to correct what they consider the wrong ideas of others.

“They also like to symbolize their virtue publicly through actions like the clothes they wear, the books they buy, or the organizations they belong to,” Aquino said.

The professor noted previous research found vigilantes emerge when people believe workplace authorities are failing to ensure organizational justice by not punishing people perceived to be deviants.

And that can cause problems.

“Although vigilantes’ moral convictions can have positive outcomes by correcting authorities’ failures to punish wrongdoers, if their actions are misguided or based on incomplete information then they can unfairly tarnish a business’s reputation or, in some cases, force people out of an organization without due process,” said Aquino, who was recognized in 2021 as one of UBC’s top researchers.

But, Aquino explained, not everyone perceives injustice the same way. This can lead to conflicts about how to respond and challenges around what we now call “cancel culture.”

The study was a collaboration between UBC, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Otago, Simon Fraser University, York University, the University of Toronto and Singapore Management University.

Among Aquino’s other work is one examining how those who falsely signal victimhood and virtue correlate with a higher likelihood to hold dark triad personality traits (narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism).

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