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discussions, stats, and author profiles for this publication at: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/222317333

Identity threat and antisocial behavior in

organizations: The moderating effects of
individual differences, aggressive modeling,
and hierarchical status


Impact Factor: 3.13 DOI: 10.1016/S0749-5978(02)00517-4 Source: RePEc


99 1,174 255


Karl Aquino Scott C. Douglas

University of British Columbia - Vancouver University of Montana


Available from: Karl Aquino

Retrieved on: 13 September 2015
Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 90 (2003) 195208

Identity threat and antisocial behavior in organizations:

The moderating eects of individual dierences, aggressive
modeling, and hierarchical status
Karl Aquinoa,* and Scott Douglasb
Department of Business Administration, College of Business and Economics, University of Delaware, Newark, DE 19716, USA
Binghamton University, PO Box 6000, Binghamton, NY 13902, USA


This study examines whether the experience of identity threat predicts antisocial behavior directed towards other employees. A
social interactionist model is used as a theoretical framework for predicting that employees who are frequent recipients of actions
that challenge or diminish their sense of competence, dignity, or self-worth will engage in higher levels of antisocial behavior.
However, it is predicted that the strength of this relation will be moderated by individual (gender, age, and attitudes toward revenge)
and situational (aggressive modeling, hierarchical status) factors. Data from 308 employees from three organizations supported
moderating eects of age, revenge attitudes, and hierarchical status. A three-way interaction was also found showing that identity
threat was more strongly related to antisocial behavior for low as compared to high status employees, but only when they were
exposed to low levels of aggressive modeling.
2003 Elsevier Science (USA). All rights reserved.

1. Introduction economic, psychological, or emotional harm (Robinson

& OLeary-Kelly, 1998). The study of these behaviors
Harmful, injurious, and destructive behaviors di- has attracted considerable interest in recent years and
rected by one employee against another are common several theoretical models have been advanced to ex-
occurrences in todays workplace. One study of Finnish plain their occurrence. One model proposed by OLeary-
workers found that 32% had observed one or more co- Kelly and her colleagues (OLeary-Kelly, Grin, &
workers being exposed to verbally harassing behavior at Glew, 1996) emphasizes situational determinants like
work (Bj sterman, & Hjelt-B
orkqvist, O ack, 1994). In decisions that aect valued outcomes, incentive induce-
another study, a survey of American human resource ments that reward aggressive behavior, and aversive
managers found that 20% reported that their organiza- physical environments. Other models focus on individ-
tions had experienced workplace violence since 1990 ual-level variables like perceptions of injustice (Aquino,
(Romano, 1994). As a nal example, a survey of 327 Lewis, & Bradeld, 1999; Greenberg & Alge, 1998;
rst-line American workers showed that half reported Skarlicki & Folger, 1997), cognitive appraisal processes
acts of mistreatment at work within a three-year time (Martinko & Zellars, 1998), emotional reactivity
frame (Ehrlich & Larcom, 1994). Some writers refer to (Berkowitz, 1993), and negative aectivity (Skarlicki,
these acts, and others like them, as antisocial workplace Folger, & Tesluk, 1999). Finally, more dynamic models
behavior (e.g., Andersson & Pearson, 1999; Robinson & describe how antisocial behavior results from an ongo-
OLeary-Kelly, 1998). ing process of repeated interpersonal exchanges where
Antisocial workplace behavior has been dened as one party perceives a threat to his or her self-identity
actions directed towards other employees or the orga- and retaliates against the perceived source of threat.
nization that have the potential for producing physical, This explanation underlies social interactionist theories
of aggression (e.g., Felson, 1992; Felson & Steadman,
* 1983; Tedeschi & Felson, 1994) and models of conict
Corresponding author. Fax: 1-302-831-4196.
E-mail address: aquinok@be.udel.edu (K. Aquino). escalation (e.g., Andersson & Pearson, 1999; Folger &

0749-5978/03/$ - see front matter 2003 Elsevier Science (USA). All rights reserved.
196 K. Aquino, S. Douglas / Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 90 (2003) 195208

Skarlicki, 1998) and revenge in organizations (e.g., Bies, threaten these identities (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden,
Tripp, & Kramer, 1997). 1996; Felson & Steadman, 1983). The treatment a
This study draws from each of the theoretical per- person receives from others is an important source of
spectives cited above to test a model in which identity- identity validation (e.g., Darwin, 1872; Goman, 1967;
threatening events experienced by an employee are Lind & Tyler, 1988; Sennett & Cobb, 1973; Steele,
hypothesized to predict antisocial behaviors performed 1988). Consequently, being treated poorly by ones co-
by that employee. We view identity-threatening events workers can threaten ones personal identity as a moral
as a subclass of the broader category of antisocial be- being deserving of fairness, consideration, and respect
havior. However, in contrast to most studies of antiso- (Bies, 1999; Lind & Tyler, 1988) as well as his or her
cial behavior, we conceptualize and measure identity social identity as a valued organizational member
threats as actions directed against an employee by one (Lind, 1997).
or more co-workers. We then assume that these expe- We dene an identity threat as any overt action by
riences can provoke the threat-recipient to respond by another party that challenges, calls into question, or
engaging in other forms of antisocial behavior. The diminishes a persons sense of competence, dignity, or
proposed relationship between identity threat and an self-worth (Bies, 1999; Steele, 1988). Examples include
aggressive counter-response follows directly from dy- ethnic or religious slurs, harsh criticism of ones abilities,
namic models of conict escalation and revenge (e,g., deceit, or public humiliation (Bies, 1999). We focus on
Andersson & Pearson, 1999; Bies et al., 1997; Felson & these behaviors, because it is the less intense forms of
Steadman, 1983; Folger & Skarlicki, 1998) and is em- interpersonal mistreatment, rather than the more highly
pirically well established (e.g., Felson, 1992; Felson & publicized forms like physical assault or homicide, that
Steadman, 1983; Tedeschi & Felson, 1994). Hence, we occur most frequently in organizations (Andersson &
treat it as a building block for more complex hypothe- Pearson, 1999; Baron & Neuman, 1996). As mentioned
ses. Rather than simply replicating previous work, our earlier, identity threats can provoke antisocial behavior.
study makes several unique contributions to the litera- Oftentimes these behaviors will be retaliatory responses
ture. First, this is the only study to our knowledge that directed by the threat-recipient (the target) against the
directly tests the relationship between identity threat- perceived source of threat (the perpetrator). Some of
ening events and antisocial behavior. Second, we go these responses are likely to qualify as antisocial because
beyond looking at the main eect of identity threat by they have the potential to harm the perpetrator.
examining individual-level and contextual variables as The motives for retaliation are numerous. They can
moderators of this relationship. Finally, we combine the include the targets need to rearm a damaged identity,
individual and contextual variables into a higher-order to restore justice, or to deter future identity threats
interaction that adds new theoretical complexity to ex- (Baumeister et al., 1996; Felson, 1992; Felson & Stead-
isting models of antisocial behavior. man, 1983; Gilligan, 1996; Tedeschi & Felson, 1994).
We investigate two categories of individual-level But the threat-recipient may also direct antisocial be-
variables as possible moderators: demographic charac- havior against non-perpetrators. A recent meta-analysis
teristics and attitudes toward revenge (Stuckless & showed that displaced aggression in response to various
Goranson, 1992). Guided by OLeary-Kelly et al.s triggering provocations is a robust and valid phenome-
(1996) model of organization-motivated aggression, we non (Marcus-Newhall, Pederson, Carlson, & Miller,
examine whether the presence of aggressive role models 2000). In such cases, antisocial behavior in the form of
in the workplace strengthens the relation between displaced aggression may serve a value-expressive
identity threat and antisocial behavior. Lastly, we in- function by allowing the threat-recipient to vent nega-
vestigate the relatively understudied question of whether tive emotions (e.g., anger, shame, or resentment) against
this relation is moderated by the threat-recipients hi- a convenient, available, or powerless target (Bies et al.,
erarchical status. 1997; Lind & Tyler, 1988; Thomas, 1992). Whether di-
rected against the perpetrator or someone else, there are
theoretical grounds for predicting a relationship be-
2. Theoretical background and hypotheses tween identity threat and antisocial behavior; hence, we
test the following hypothesis:
A persons self-identity consists of a combination of
personal attributes (e.g., capable, competent) and the Hypothesis 1. Identity threats experienced by an em-
social identities (e.g., gender, ethnicity) that he or she ployee are positively related to antisocial behaviors
seeks to present in a given situation (Erez & Early, performed by that employee.
1993). Most people strive to maintain positive self
(Bies, 1999; Brockner, 1988; Steele, 1988) and social As noted earlier, Hypothesis 1 is a building block to
identities (Tajfel & Turner, 1985) and so they are highly our subsequent predictions. Our primary aim in this
motivated to defend themselves against acts that study is to test whether individual level variables, social
K. Aquino, S. Douglas / Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 90 (2003) 195208 197

modeling, and hierarchical status moderate this relation. threats than men. The following hypothesis tests this
We rst consider the eect of three individual-level prediction:
variablesgender, age, and attitudes toward revenge
that prior theory and research has identied as likely Hypothesis 2. The relationship between identity threats
predictors of antisocial behavior. experienced by an employee and antisocial behaviors
performed by that employee is stronger for men than
2.1. Demographic dierences women.

Our rationale for hypothesizing that gender and age Age. Age is another demographic characteristic that
moderate the relation between identity threat and anti- might moderate the link between identity threat and
social behavior is based on three well-documented em- antisocial behavior. Studies in non-organizational set-
pirical ndings. First, anger is one of the primary tings show that older persons experience lower levels of
emotions generated by an identity threat (Bies, 1999; anger in response to situational stressors than younger
Felson & Steadman, 1983; Gilligan, 1996; Steele, 1988). ones (Ross & Van Willigen, 1996; Scheiman, 1999). If
Second, anger is a known predictor of antisocial be- this eect generalizes to the workplace, then we would
havior (Averill, 1982; Felson, 1992; Skarlicki et al., expect the strength of the relationship between identity
1999). And third, peoples observable reactions to anger- threat and antisocial behavior to decline with age.
producing events have been found to dier as a function There are several theories supporting this prediction.
of gender (e.g., Kogut, Langely, & ONeal, 1992; Tavris, Disengagement theory (Cumming & Henry, 1961)
1982) and age (e.g., Scheiman, 1999). Taken together, posits that as people become older they withdraw from
these ndings suggest that demographic characteristics society and have fewer social interactions. As a result,
may moderate the relationship between identity threat they become less emotionally invested in other people
and antisocial behavior. and objects, less concerned with social expectations,
Gender. Several studies have shown that men display and more inner focused (Neugarten, 1996). If a disen-
overt anger more frequently than women (Kogut et al., gagement process occurs in the workplace, then older
1992; Tavris, 1984). Overt expressions of anger often employees may place less importance on the treatment
fall within the same conceptual domain as antisocial they receive from co-workers as a source of self- and
behavior as dened in this study. For example, Speil- social-validation. As a result, they are less likely to
bergers (1996) State-Trait Anger Expression Inventory respond aggressively to identity-threatening events.
(STAXI) identies behaviors like making sarcastic re- Social-emotional selectivity theory (Cartensen, 1992)
marks and saying nasty things to others, arguing with makes a similar prediction.
others, and striking out at others to measure the out- According to social-emotional selectivity theory
ward expression of anger. Since all of these behaviors (Cartensen, 1992), people become more eective at
have the potential to harm others, there is reason conserving their emotions and are less profoundly af-
to believe that variables predicting overt expressions of fected by others as they age. They also grow more tol-
anger, such as gender, may also predict antisocial erant of others and show a greater capacity to express
behavior. aection even in conict situations. In sum, this theory
One explanation for the observed gender dierences implies that age is accompanied by a state of psycho-
in overt expressions of anger is that cultural norms logical and emotional maturity that may reduce the in-
support a traditional belief that women should suppress tensity of peoples reactions to identity-threatening
their anger (Tavris, 1984). In an organizational context, events (Scheiman, 1999). In turn, this should decrease
some writers (e.g., Black, 1990) have argued that this their motivation to engage in antisocial behavior. Both
belief leads to a double-standard that gives men greater disengagement and social-emotional theory suggest the
latitude in expressing anger and aggression than wo- following hypothesis concerning the moderating eects
men. From this perspective, women often inhibit the of age:
expression of anger for fear of being regarded as in-
appropriately aggressive or domineering (Glomb & Hypothesis 3. The relationship between identity threats
Hulin, 1997). Supporting this view, studies show that experienced by an employee and antisocial behavior
women regard displays of anger as being less socially performed by that employee is stronger for younger
appropriate than men (Smith et al., 1989) and as having than older employees.
greater personal and relationship costs (Davis, LaRosa,
& Foshee, 1992). These dierences in cultural expecta- In addition to demographics, we examine the possible
tions regarding the appropriateness of expressing anger moderating eect of an attitudinal construct that has
in response to provocative events provides a theoretical clear conceptual relevance for explaining antisocial be-
basis for predicting that women will also exhibit lower havior. This construct is a persons attitude towards
levels of antisocial behavior in response to identity revenge (Stuckless & Goranson, 1992).
198 K. Aquino, S. Douglas / Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 90 (2003) 195208

2.2. Revenge attitudes encourage antisocial behavior. One of these factors is

the presence of aggressive models. As Bandura and his
Attitudes formed through learning and acculturation colleagues (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963) showed in
are most likely to inuence behavior when the attitudes their famous clown studies, even strangers are inuential
are strong, specic, and relevant (Fishbein & Ajzen, role models for antisocial behavior. This observation is
1975). Revenge attitudes t this description because consistent with the predictions of social information
most people have had repeated opportunities to con- processing theory (Salancik & Pfeer, 1978). According
template acts of vengeance. Furthermore, the content of to this theory, people use information in their immediate
these attitudes is directly associated with the likelihood environment to develop expectations concerning ap-
of retaliation against perceived mistreatment. We pre- propriate behavior. Since employees are likely to look to
viously argued that antisocial behavior includes acts their co-workers for signals that indicate how they are
directed against the perceived source of identity threat expected to behave in the workplace, the extent to which
as well as value-expressive acts that are displaced they choose to engage in antisocial behavior in response
against convenient or vulnerable targets. In either case, to identity threats should be inuenced by their expo-
there are theoretical reasons to expect antisocial be- sure to aggressive role models. Robinson and OLeary-
havior to occur more frequently in response to an Kellys (1998) study of workgroups supports this con-
identity threat when a person holds more rather than clusion by showing that the behavior of ones group is a
less favorable attitudes toward revenge. powerful determinant of an individuals antisocial be-
First, a favorable attitude toward revenge indicates havior. Based on theories of social learning (Bandura,
high levels of a value-expressive orientation regarding 1973) and social information processing (Salancik &
revenge (Stuckless & Goranson, 1992), making the ex- Pfeer, 1978), we expect the relation between identity
pression of that value strong enough to encourage dis- threat and antisocial behavior to be moderated by the
placed aggression (as antisocial behavior) when the employees perception of aggressive models in their im-
instrumental uses of aggression (acts targeted directly mediate work environment. The following hypothesis
against the source of identity threat) are unavailable. tests this prediction:
Second, antisocial behavior should occur less frequently
among people who disapprove of revenge because (a) Hypothesis 5. The relationship between identity threats
their need to express this value is less strong and (b) the experienced by an employee and antisocial behavior
tendency to aggress against sources of identity threat performed by the employee is stronger for employees
would be limited to those cases where it could success- exposed to more frequent models of aggressive behavior.
fully serve an instrumental purpose. Taken together,
these two conditions suggest that the relationship be- We now turn to social status, another possible mod-
tween identity threat and antisocial behavior strengthens erator of the relation between identity threat and anti-
as peoples attitudes toward revenge become more fa- social behavior that has received scant attention in the
vorable. The following hypothesis tests this prediction: management literature. Although several writers have
argued that status dierences have implications for how
Hypothesis 4. The relationship between identity threats people respond to identity threats (e.g., Baumeister
experienced by an employee and antisocial behavior et al., 1996; Gilligan, 1996; Wicklund & Gollwitzer,
performed by that employee is stronger for employees 1982), this hypothesis has not been empirically tested in
who hold favorable rather than unfavorable attitudes organizations. The clearest indicator of social status in
toward revenge. organizations is hierarchical position; hence, we used
this variable as a basis for testing our predictions re-
Thus far we have presented arguments supporting the garding the moderating eects of status.
moderating eects of individual-level variables on the
relation between an identity threat and antisocial be- 2.4. Hierarchical status
havior. In the following section, we introduce a con-
textual variableaggressive modelingas another The desire to achieve high status is among the most
possible moderator of this relation. ubiquitous and powerful of all human motives (Daly &
Wilson, 1988). One reason for this is that in almost all
2.3. Aggressive modeling social groups, those who reach the top of status hier-
archy generally receive a disproportionately large share
Social learning theory (Bandura, 1973) treats antiso- of the symbolic and material things toward which peo-
cial behavior as being learned and maintained in much ple strive (e.g., pay, authority, recognition, prestige,
the same way as any other behavior (Geen, 1990; autonomy) whereas those at the lowest levels receive a
Martinko & Zellars, 1998). A basic tenet of the social disproportionately large share of negative liabilities
learning perspective is that environmental factors can (e.g., dangerous working conditions, low pay, harsh
K. Aquino, S. Douglas / Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 90 (2003) 195208 199

treatment from superiors). Several writers (e.g., Bau- anthropological studies have found that when group
meister et al., 1996; Gilligan, 1996; Wicklund & Gol- leaders abuse their power, they can provoke reprisals
lwitzer, 1982; Daly & Wilson, 1988) have argued that a from their subordinates in what has been described as a
social psychological consequence of status dierences in reverse dominance hierarchy (Boehm, 1993). What
social hierarchies is that the losers become highly these ndings suggest is that it may be to the political
aggressive in defending themselves against identity advantage of high status persons to refrain from exces-
threats. Daly and Wilson (1988) argued that this occurs sive displays of antisocial behavior. If a norm of social
because people compete not merely to attain high status, restraint operates in organizations, then the relationship
but to also avoid low status. Consequently, people at the between identity threat and antisocial behavior should
bottom of the hierarchy, particularly if they are men, are be weaker for high as compared to low status employ-
often willing to do whatever it takes to respond com- ees. The two theoretical mechanisms described above,
petitively to acts that threaten to undermine their al- which we will refer to as the symbolic armations
ready precarious social positions. and social restraint explanations, lead to the follow-
Gilligans (1996) interviews with men imprisoned for ing prediction:
violent oenses support Daly and Wilsons (1988) claim.
In his interviews, Gilligan found that many of the vio- Hypothesis 6a. The relationship between identity threats
lent acts that led to the oenders imprisonment were experienced by an employee and antisocial behavior
triggered by what, for most people, would appear to be performed by the employee is stronger for employees
rather trivial insults (e.g., being given a dirty look, with low rather than high hierarchical status.
having ones new shoes stepped on, being shoved by
someone at a bar). However, from the perspective of Assuming Hypothesis 6a is supported by data, a
men whose lives oered few opportunities for acquiring logical follow-up question is which of the two mecha-
status-enhancing resources, aggressive responses to in- nisms best explains the results. We believe it is possible
sults became a way of preserving what little status they to provide a tentative answer to this question by testing
had. These ndings led Gilligan (1996) to conclude that a three-way interaction involving identity threat, hier-
the experience of being shamed or humiliated, and the archical status, and aggressive modeling. If high status
consequent need to defend ones self-respect, provides a employees are inuenced primarily by a norm of social
plausible explanation for societal violence. restraint that discourages them from engaging in anti-
Applying the theoretical arguments and empirical social behavior in response to identity threat, then the
ndings cited above to organizations, we propose that a moderating eect of hierarchical status should be af-
high status position and the symbolic and material af- fected by environmental dierences in aggressive mod-
rmations that accompany it provide the role occupant eling. Specically, when the organizational environment
with a psychological buer against self-invalidating presents few models of aggressive behavior, then high
events. If so, then high status employees should be less status persons should feel the strongest normative
motivated to exhibit antisocial behavior in response to pressure to refrain from exhibiting antisocial behavior in
identity threats than low status employees. This rea- response to identity threats. The reason being that such
soning suggests that the relation between identity threat actions can generate resentment and hostility among
and antisocial behavior is weaker for high as compared subordinates and perhaps even peers. As a result, the
to low status employees. However, there is a second high status employees authority and position of domi-
theoretical argument supporting this prediction that is nance may be undermined (Boehm, 1993). Empirically,
not based on the notion a surfeit of symbolic and ma- this argument would be supported if we found a stron-
terial armations provides a psychological buer ger relationship between identity threat and antisocial
against identity threat. This explanation posits that high behavior for low as compared to high status employees
status employees may perceive greater normative pres- in the absence of aggressive models. However, when the
sures to refrain from exhibiting antisocial behavior be- environment has many aggressive role models, then high
cause they occupy highly visible leadership roles. status employee may perceive little or no obligation to
Leaders who engage in petty revenge, or who punish exercise social restraint, since nobody else in the social
others excessively or arbitrarily, can invite resentment environment does so. As a result, in the presence of
and hostility among subordinates and peers because aggressive models, the relationship between identity
such actions may be viewed as an abuse of power threat and antisocial behavior should be less inuenced
(Freud, 1950; Hogan & Emler, 1981). A study by by the targets hierarchical status. The pattern of results
Aquino, Tripp, and Bies (2001) supported this argument described above predicts a three-way interaction be-
by showing that the relationship between the attribution tween identity threat, hierarchical status, and aggressive
of blame for an interpersonal oense and revenge modeling consistent with the social restraint argument.
against the oender was weaker when the oender had On the other hand, if the symbolic armations ar-
high as compared to low hierarchical status. Similarly, gument better accounts for the data we should see a
200 K. Aquino, S. Douglas / Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 90 (2003) 195208

dierent pattern of relationships among identity threat, box after all the participants had completed the second
hierarchical status, and aggressive modeling. Speci- survey. Respondents provided their mothers maiden
cally, if receiving a surplus of symbolic armations name and their date of birth on both surveys so that
explains why high status persons are less likely than low their responses could be matched.
status persons to respond to identity threats by engaging
in antisocial behavior, then the presence (or absence) of 3.2. Sample
aggressive role models should not inuence the moder-
ating eect of status. This means that we should nd Three-hundred and eight employees provided usable
empirical support for a two-way interaction involving data on all study variables (84% response rate). Ninety-
identity threat and hierarchical status (Hypothesis 6a), seven respondents were employed by the transportation
but not for a three-way interaction that includes ag- company, 95 by the public school system, and 116 by the
gressive modeling. municipality. We excluded data from 59 employees who
Based on the preceding arguments, we test the fol- initially agreed to participate because they either: (a)
lowing three-way interaction to see which of the theo- failed to complete both surveys; (b) failed to provide the
retical mechanisms described above best accounts for same identifying information during both administra-
the data, keeping in mind that a lack of evidence for one tions; or (c) were not employed by their current em-
mechanism does not necessarily provide conclusive ployer for at least six months prior to the rst
support for the other: administration. With the exception of two males who
left during the rst administration, eligible employees
Hypothesis 6b. The relation between identity threats elected to participate in the study. Two-hundred and
experienced by an employee and antisocial behavior thirty-six employees were in non-management positions,
performed by that employee is stronger for employees 47 were line managers, 15 were middle managers, and 10
who have low rather than high hierarchical status, but were in senior management positions. One hundred and
only when the employee is exposed to few rather than seventy two respondents were males and 136 were fe-
many aggressive role models. males. Their average age was 35 and their average tenure
was ve years. Ninety-one percent of the sample was
White Caucasian, 5% was Native American, and the
3. Method remaining 4% was of other ethnic origins.

3.1. Procedures 3.3. Measures

Two surveys were distributed to 367 employees from Antisocial behavior. We used six items (Saying or
three organizations located in the northeast United doing something to purposely hurt other coworkers
States. The organizations included a transportation while at work, Saying unkind things to purposely
company, a public school system, and a municipality. harm other coworkers while at work, Doing unkind
The rst survey included the measures of revenge atti- things to purposely harm other coworkers while at
tudes, aggressive modeling, status, gender, and age. work, Criticizing other coworkers while at work,
Prior to completing this survey, employees attended a Saying nasty things to other coworkers while at work,
meeting with one of the investigators who briey de- Starting arguments with other coworkers while at
scribed the studys purpose. Surveys were then admin- work) from a 13-item scale used by Douglas and
istered on-site and no members of upper management Martinko (2001) that describe potentially harmful ac-
were present during the administration to lower level tions directed towards co-workers. Their scale was
personnel. Completed surveys were placed in a box and originally adapted from Robinson and OLeary-Kellys
the investigator, who remained in the room during the (1998) 9-item Individual Anti-Social Behavior measure.
administration, removed the contents after all partici- Respondents indicated how often they performed these
pants had completed the surveys. The second survey was behaviors on a 5-point Likert scale format (1 Never,
completed 58 days later and included the measures of 2 13 times, 3 46 times, 4 79 times, and
identity threat and antisocial behavior. For this ad- 5 More than 10 times).
ministration, employees were again asked to attend a Identity threat. Nine items measured this construct.
meeting in which an investigator briey described the The items were drawn from previous instruments used
study. However, rather than describe the second survey to measure harmful workplace behaviors directed
as a continuation of the rst, it was presented as an against the employee by others. We selected items from
assessment of workplace behaviors. During both ad- these instruments that we believed would best reect the
ministrations the voluntary and condential nature of concept of an identity threat as we have dened it;
the study was emphasized. Once again, the investigator namely, an overt action by another party that chal-
remained in the room and removed the contents of the lenges, calls into question, or diminishes a persons sense
K. Aquino, S. Douglas / Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 90 (2003) 195208 201

of competence, dignity or self-worth. We used two items we assessed the t of the three-factor model to the data.
(Did something to make you look bad, Swore at We used the root-mean-squared error of approximation
you) from a study by Aquino, Grover, Bradeld, and (RMSEA) and the comparative t index (CFI) as in-
Allen (1999). The remaining seven items (Made in- dices of t. The results showed that these t statistics
sulting comments about your private live, Looked at failed to reach the recommended levels (Bollen, 1989):
you in a negative way, Judged your work in an unjust RMSEA :11 and CFI :85. When a model fails to
manner, Criticized you unfairly, Questioned your achieve a good t, deleting problematic indicators is an
abilities or judgments, Embarrassed you in front of acceptable solution (Anderson & Gerbing, 1988). In-
your coworkers, Unfairly blamed you for a negative spection of modication indices and standardized re-
outcome) were adapted from the Workplace Harass- siduals indicated that t could be improved by deleting
ment Scale (Bj orkqvist et al., 1994). For each item, re- two items from the antisocial behavior measure
spondents reported the number of times that one or (Criticizing other coworkers while at work, Saying
more coworkers displayed the target behavior towards nasty things about other coworkers while at work),
them within the past 6 months using a 5-point Likert three items from the aggressive modeling measure
scale (1 Never, 2 13 times, 3 46 times, 4 79 (Saying or doing something to purposely hurt other
times, and 5 10 or more times). Furthermore, we asked coworkers while at work, Criticizing other coworkers
them to report only those behaviors that caused them to while at work, Starting arguments with other co-
experience psychological or emotional discomfort. This workers while at work), and one item from the iden-
was done so that we measured only those incidents that tity threat measure (Swore at you). After deleting
were likely to be experienced by respondents as threat- these items, the t statistics fell within acceptable ran-
ening to their self-concepts. ges: RMSEA :08 and CFI :93. Furthermore, the
Aggressive modeling. We measured this construct us- parameter estimates for all the indicators were signi-
ing nine items adapted from the Individual Anti-Social cant. Based on these results, we concluded that the
Behavior scale developed by Robinson and OLeary- remaining items showed acceptable unidimensionality
Kelly (1998). The nine adapted items ask the respondents and were combined to form scales. The Cronbachs a
to indicate the extent they observed their coworkers en- reliabilities were .88, .93, and .86 for antisocial behav-
gaging in antisocial workplace behaviors (e.g., Please ior, identity threat, and aggressive modeling scales, re-
indicate the number of times you have observed your spectively.
coworkers: saying rude things about other coworkers or Demographics. Gender and age were measured by
the organization while at work and deliberately self-reports. Gender was dummy coded for the regres-
bending or breaking rules while at work.). The re- sion analysis (female 0, male 1).
sponses were provided in the rst questionnaire using a Attitude towards revenge. The 20-item Vengeance
5-point Likert format (1 Never, 2 13 times, 3 46 Scale (Stuckless & Goranson, 1992) was used to measure
times, 4 79 times, and 5 10 or more times). this construct. The scale measures the extent a person
The measures of identity threat, antisocial behavior, possesses a positive attitude toward seeking vengeance.
and aggressive modeling presumably tap conceptually Representative items are I try to even the score with
distinct constructs because we varied the referent for anyone who hurts me, I believe in the motto an eye
each behavior. The items measuring identity threat ask for eye, a tooth for a tooth, and If someone causes me
the respondent to report behaviors directed towards trouble, Ill nd a way to make them regret it. Re-
them, the antisocial behavior items asks them to report spondents answered on a seven-point (1 Strongly dis-
on behaviors they directed against others, and the ag- agree, 7 Strongly agree) Likert scale. Items were
gressive modeling items ask about behaviors exhibited summed to produce a scale score such that high scores
by co-workers in general. However, because many of the indicate a more positive attitude towards revenge
behaviors have a similar negative content, one could (a :95).
argue that these items tap a common construct. We Hierarchical status. We measured this variable by
examined this possibility by using conrmatory factor asking respondents to indicate whether they were em-
analysis (CFA) to compare a single factor model with ployed in a non-management, line management, middle
the proposed three-factor model. LISREL 8.3 (Joreskog management, or senior/executive management position.
& Sorbom, 1999) was used for this analysis. The sample Line-management was described as supervising non-
correlation matrix was used as data input for the CFA. management personnel and middle management was
A v2 dierence test showed that the three-factor model described as managing managers. The responses were
t the data signicantly better than a single-factor model coded such that higher values indicated higher status
(Dv2 1015:12, df 3, p < :001), indicating that the (1 non-management, 4 senior/executive manage-
items do not tap the same underlying construct. ment).
We wanted to establish that the items underlying the Control variables. We controlled for organizational
proposed three-factor model were unidimensional, so factors that might be related to antisocial behavior but
202 K. Aquino, S. Douglas / Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 90 (2003) 195208

that were not directly measured by creating two dummy Hierarchical regression analysis was used to test the
variables to represent the school district and the trans- hypotheses. The variables forming the interactions were
portation company. The municipality served as the ref- centered to minimize multicollinearity among the inter-
erence category. actions and their individual components (Aiken & West,
1991). The results of the regression analysis are shown in
Table 2. The table presents the unstandardized beta
4. Results weights for the predictor variables, the total R2 at each
step, and the DR2 for steps 24.
Table 1 shows the means, standard deviations, and The set of main eects accounted for a signicant
correlations for all study variables. amount of variance in antisocial behavior (DR2 :40,

Table 1
Means, standard deviations, and correlations among study variables
Mean SD (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7)
(1) Antisocial behavior 5.66 3.28 (.88)
(2) Identity threat 14.82 7.53 .53 (.93)
(3) Attitude toward revenge 55.41 26.23 .52 .47 (.95)
(4) Hierarchical status 1.35 .72 ).07 ).07 ).08
(5) Aggressive modeling 17.00 6.75 .26 .37 .20 .27 (.86)
(6) Age 3.58 1.10 ).08 .01 ).05 .15 .05
(7) Gender .56 .50 .17 .12 .33 .12 .04 ).03

Note. (N 308). Cronbachs a reliabilities for the scales are shown along the diagonal.
p 6 :05.
p 6 :01.

Table 2
Results of hierarchical regression analysis for antisocial behaviora
Variables Step 1: Step 2: Step 3: Step 4:
Controls Main eects Two-way interaction Three-way interaction
Constant 5.85 .82 1.68 2.36
School employee ).413 .732 .335 .343
Transportation employee ).195 .461 ).236 ).232

Main eects
Identity threat .157 .131 .090
Gender .511 .470 .478
Age ).220 ).210 ).209
Attitude towards revenge .042 .034 .034
Aggressive modeling .031 .037 .055
Hierarchical status ).085 ).293 ).667
Two-way interaction
Identity threat  Gender .035 .038
Identity threat  Age ).037 ).040
Identity threat  Attitude toward revenge .002 .002
Identity threat  Aggressive modeling .004 .012
Identity Threat  Hierarchical status .012 ).131
Hierarchical status  Aggressive modeling .064 .125
Three-way interaction
Identity threat  Hierarchical status  .028
Aggressive modeling
R2 .01 .41 .46 .49
DR2 .01 .40 .05 .03
Entries are unstandardized betas.
p 6 :05.
p 6 :01.
p 6 :001.
K. Aquino, S. Douglas / Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 90 (2003) 195208 203

p 6 :001) and, as predicted in Hypothesis 1, identity threat

was positively related to the criterion (B :157, p 6 :001).
Although not hypothesized, the direct eects of attitude
toward revenge (B :042, p 6 :001) was also signicant.
However, these main eects are qualied by the presence
of signicant interactions (Aiken & West, 1991).
The set of two-way interactions accounted for a sig-
nicant amount of additional variance in antisocial be-
havior (DR2 :05, p 6 :001). Inspection of the
individual regression weights for the third step reveals
that while the interactions involving identity threat and
age (B :037, p 6 :05) and identity threat and attitude
towards revenge (B :002, p 6 :01) were signicant, the
interactions between identity threat and gender
(B :035, p > :05), identity threat and aggressive
modeling (B :004, p > :05), and identity threat and Fig. 1.
hierarchical status (B :012, p > :05) were not. These
results provide initial support for Hypotheses 3 and 4
and fail to support Hypotheses 2, 5 and 6a.
We explored the form of the signicant two-way in-
teractions found in step 3 as recommended by Aiken
and West (1991). For each interaction we calculated the
simple slopes of antisocial behavior on identity threat
and their standard errors at three levels (i.e., mean, one
standard deviation above and one standard deviation
below the mean) of the second predictors (i.e., age and
attitudes toward revenge) as suggested by Cohen and
Cohen (1983). Next, we conducted t tests on the values
of the simple slopes divided by their standard errors.
The results of these analyses are shown in Table 3 and
illustrated in Figs. 1 and 2. These results indicate that
the positive relationship between identity threat and Fig. 2.
antisocial behavior is stronger for younger employees
than older employees, and for employees who have more
rather less positive attitudes toward revenge. Addition- The results for step 4 of the regression analysis oer
ally, since the regression coecients for the two-way conditional support for Hypotheses 5 and 6a. In Step 4,
interactions are signicant in the overall regression both the three-way interaction involving identity
analysis, we know that the simple slopes of antisocial threat, aggressive modeling and hierarchical status
behavior on identity threat dier as a function of the (B :028, p 6 :001, DR2 :03, p 6 :001) and the two-
second predictors (Aiken & West, 1991). These ndings way interactions involving identity threat and aggres-
support Hypotheses 3 and 4. sive modeling (B :012, p 6 :01) and identity threat

Table 3
Results of standard errors and t tests for simple slopes of two-way interactions including identity threat and second predictors
Second predictor Simple slope SE t test Intercepta
High .090 .019 4.75 5.92
Mean .131 .020 6.55 6.15
Low .172 .021 8.12 6.38
Attitude towards revenge
High .183 .050 3.67 11.46
Mean .131 .020 6.55 11.21
Low .079 .045 1.74 ns 10.96
ns, Not signicant.
Predicted value for antisocial behavior when identity threat is at its centered mean (i.e., X 0).
p 6 :001.
204 K. Aquino, S. Douglas / Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 90 (2003) 195208

and hierarchical status (B :131, p 6 :05) are signif-

icant. These results can be interpreted as showing that
the signicance of the two-way interactions depends
upon the value of the omitted third variable. Speci-
cally, the two-way interaction between identity threat
and aggressive modeling is signicant when the value
for hierarchical status is at its mean. Similarly, the two-
way interaction between identity threat and hierarchi-
cal status is signicant when the value for aggressive
modeling is at its mean. Further examination of the
data revealed that the two-way interaction between
identity threat and aggressive modeling is signicant Fig. 3.
when the value for hierarchical status is one standard
deviation below its mean, but is not signicant when
the value for hierarchical status is at one standard 5. Discussion
deviation above its mean. Also, while the two-way in-
teraction between identity threat and hierarchical status This study is the rst to directly link identity threat to
is signicant when the value for aggressive modeling is antisocial behavior in organizations. There is ample
one standard deviation above its mean, it is not sig- evidence that people are strongly motivated to maintain
nicant when the value for aggressive modeling is one positive self and social identities and that identity-
standard deviation below its mean. threatening events can provoke an aggressive behavioral
We probed the form of the signicant three-way response. This relationship was the basis for our theo-
interaction using procedures recommended by Aiken retical model and was supported by our data. However,
and West (1991). First, we calculated the simple slopes the unique contribution of this study was to show that
of antisocial behavior on identity threat and their the relationship is more complex because it is moderated
standard errors at two levels (i.e., one standard devi- by individual-level and contextual variables.
ation above and one standard deviation below the
mean) of the second and third predictors (i.e., hier- 5.1. Theoretical implications
archical status and aggressive modeling). We then
conducted t tests on the values of the simple slopes Past studies support direct relationships between an-
divided by their standard errors. The results of these tisocial behavior and specic individual level predictors,
analyses are shown in Table 4 and illustrated in Fig. but these variables typically explain relatively little
3. These results indicate that the positive relationship variance (Robinson & Greenberg, 1998). Our ndings
between identity threat and antisocial behavior is suggest that if individual level variables play a role, it is
stronger for employees who have low as compared to more likely as moderators of the relationship between
high organizational status, but only when the em- provocative events and responses to those events. Con-
ployee is exposed to few rather than many aggressive temporary research on various forms of antisocial be-
role models. These results support Hypothesis 6b. havior support this view. For example, the personality
These results also show that in the presence of ag- trait of negative aectivity has been found to moderate
gressive models, high status persons are more likely to the relationship between perceived unfairness and re-
exhibit antisocial behavior in response to identity taliatory behavior (Skarlicki et al., 1999). Other writers
threats than are low status persons. argue that cognitive tendencies such as hostile attribu-

Table 4
Results of standard error and t test for simple slopes of three-way interaction including identity threat, hierarchical status and aggressive modeling
Second and third predictors Simple slope SE t test Intercepta
High status High aggressive modeling .212 .103 2.06 7.50
Low status High aggressive modeling .130 .106 1.22 7.24
High status Low aggressive modeling ).222 .155 1.43 5.54
Low status Low aggressive modeling .240 .092 2.61 7.72
ns, Not signicant.
Predicted value for antisocial behavior when identity threat is at its centered mean (i.e., X 0).
p 6 :05.
p 6 :001.
K. Aquino, S. Douglas / Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 90 (2003) 195208 205

tion bias intensify a persons reactions to perceived of- behaviors, such as those that were less direct, we may have
fenses (Greenberg & Alge, 1998). found signicant direct and moderating eects of gender.
We investigated an attitude that has a logical con- Some studies have examined social norms as predic-
nection to a persons responses to identity threat. As tors of antisocial behavior (e.g., Greenberg, 1998;
expected, the data showed that having favorable atti- Robinson & OLeary-Kelly, 1998). These studies rec-
tudes toward revenge strengthened the relation between ognize that local workgroup norms may support certain
identity threat and antisocial behavior. The interpreta- forms of antisocial behavior even when such behavior
tion of these ndings is straightforward. People who violates norms espoused by the dominant administrative
hold favorable attitudes toward revenge are more likely coalition, OLeary-Kelly and her colleagues (OLeary-
to endorse retaliation against perceived mistreatment as Kelly et al., 1996) suggest these norms inuence anti-
an acceptable and appropriate moral response. How- social behavior through social modeling (Bandura,
ever, we also suggested that favorable attitudes toward 1973). Robinson and OLeary-Kelly (1998) provide
revenge might motivate antisocial behavior performed empirical evidence supporting this argument by showing
for value-expressive rather than purely instrumental that aggressive modeling in workgroups aects individ-
purposes. Unfortunately, our data do not allow us to ual group members antisocial behavior. Our results
test this argument, leaving it to future research to dis- extend these ndings by showing that the eect of ag-
cover whether revenge attitudes moderate relations be- gressive modeling on responses to identity threat depend
tween identity threat and acts directed against only the on the level of a third variable: the threat-recipients
perpetrator or against convenient and powerless targets. hierarchical status.
Apart from attitudes, we found that age moderates The question of how an employees status within a
the relationship between identity threat and antisocial organizational hierarchy might inuence his or her will-
behavior. In support of disengagement and socioemo- ingness to exhibit antisocial behavior in response to
tional selectivity theories, our data suggest that older provocation has been relatively unexplored. Our data
persons may react less strongly to identity threats than show that this question warrants further investigation as
younger ones. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that age we found that the relation between identity threat and
alone did not predict antisocial behavior, but only in antisocial behavior was stronger among low than high
combination with a provocation like identity threat. status employees when the social environment provides
This nding corroborates recent articles in the popular few aggressive role models. This result parallels Aquino
press suggesting that younger employees are more likely et al.s (2001) nding that the relationship between blame
to blame and criticize others when dealing with negative attribution and revenge is stronger for low than high
workplace events (Neusner, Basso, Brenna, & Lobet, status employees. However, our study extends Aquino
2001). Clearly, the inuence of age and social maturity et al.s (2001) work by showing that this dierence only
on antisocial behavior is a fruitful and relatively ne- occurred in the absence of aggressive role models. We
glected area for further investigation. interpret this pattern as providing indirect support for
We did not nd the expected moderating eect of our social constraint argument, which posits that high
gender, nor did we nd a direct relationship between status employees are more sensitive to dierences in
gender and antisocial behavior. A possible explanation workplace norms that discourage aggression compared
for this null-result is suggested by the ndings of a recent to those with low status. As a result, in the absence of
meta-analysis by Bettencourt and Miller (1996). Al- these norms the relation between identity-threat and
though many studies have shown that men express anger antisocial behavior is less inuenced by status dierences.
more readily than women, and are generally more prone Interestingly, we also found that the positive rela-
to display aggressive behavior, Bettencourt and Miller tionship between identity threat and antisocial behavior
found that when provocation (e.g., identity threat) is was stronger for high as compared to low status em-
considered, these gender dierences are greatly attenu- ployees in the presence of aggressive models. Although
ated. Consequently, their ndings suggest that taking we did not predict this result, it is consistent with the
identity threat into account might have diminished the underlying premise of the social restraint argument;
strength of both the direct and moderating eects of namely, that high status employees are more sensitive to
gender on antisocial behavior. Notwithstanding this ex- workplace norms as compared to those with low status.
planation, we urge caution in concluding from data that What this particular nding suggests is that research on
gender plays no moderating role because it may be that its antisocial behaviors committed by high-ranking em-
eect is more pronounced for certain kinds of antisocial ployees may want to consider how the presence of ag-
behavior. For example, Bj orkqvist (1994) argues that gressive role models might inuence their willingness to
while men are more likely to engage in direct expressions engage in these acts. For example, it is plausible that
of aggression or anger, women engage in more indirect antisocial behaviors like abusive supervision (Tepper,
expressions (e.g., social manipulation and gossip). 2000) or petty tyranny (Ashforth, 1994) committed by
Therefore, had we measured dierent types of antisocial high status employees may be strongly inuenced by the
206 K. Aquino, S. Douglas / Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 90 (2003) 195208

aggressive behaviors displayed by peers, superiors, or identity threats experienced by the employee). What we
perhaps even subordinates. can say more denitively based on our results is that
the relationship between identity threat and antisocial
5.2. Managerial implications behavior appears to be more complex than a simple
direct eect.
A wave of younger employees has entered the work- All of our data were collected by questionnaires and
force to replace the aging Baby Boom generation (Ful- the measures of identity threat and antisocial behavior
lerton & Toossi, 2001). If younger employees react more were collected at the same time. Consequently, the
strongly to self-invalidating events, as our ndings sug- threat of common method variance is a second limita-
gest, then this demographic trend portends the possi- tion of the study. We note, however, that the data for
bility that workplace conict and antisocial behavior moderating variables and the dependent variable was
may increase in the near future. Given current concerns collected on two separate administrations several days
about antisocial workplace behavior, practicing man- apart. This procedure should presumably reduce con-
agers should place additional emphasis on establishing cerns about common method variance inating corre-
conict resolution mechanisms such as grievance sys- lations among the attitudinal and behavioral measures
tems and peer mediation programs that enable younger (Podsako & Organ, 1986). We would also point out
employees to vent their frustrations while avoiding po- that the concern over common method bias is further
tentially harmful and disruptive behaviors. However, mitigated in our study because we found several signif-
the social attitudes people bring with them to work (e.g., icant two- and three-way interactions. Percept-percept
attitudes toward revenge) may detract from the eec- ination is a linear confound that appears as an additive
tiveness of such programs. But because attitudes are the bias in correlation and regression analyses (Podsako &
product of learning and experience, the proclivity to Organ, 1986), therefore the presence of signicant in-
exhibit antisocial behavior in response to identity threats teractions helps to strengthen our argument that the
may be modied by changing peoples beliefs about the observed relations are a function of the constructs being
acceptability of revenge. studied rather than a methodological artifact.
Organizational environments are replete with cues A third limitation is the self-report nature of the data.
indicating the norms for acceptable workplace behavior. Reports of antisocial behavior may be particularly sus-
One of the strongest is the behavior exhibited by co- ceptible to demand characteristics that could result in
workers. Our results show that aggressive modeling may underreporting of actual behavior. But other studies
inuence whether an employee engages in antisocial be- have shown that people are surprisingly willing to report
havior in response to identity threats. If so, then practi- having engaged in deviant, even illegal, behavior (Ben-
tioners can discourage antisocial acts and reinforce more nett & Robinson, 2000). Further, if respondents under-
suitable forms of behavior by fostering ethical climates reported their antisocial behavior, it would make it more
that encourage dignied and respectful conduct and by dicult to detect signicant relations due to a restriction
instituting and reinforcing zero-tolerance policies. Our of range in the variance for the dependent variable.
results further suggest that in the absence of environ- Thus, given that our model accounted for 49% of the
ments that reinforce antisocial behavior, employees of variance in the dependent measure and that we found
lower organizational status may be more likely to react signicant relations, including two- and three-way in-
antisocially to identity threats. Given the inevitability of teractions, it is not obvious that respondents under-re-
status dierences in organizations, managers might fur- ported antisocial behaviors. It also seems unlikely that
ther enhance the development of ethical climates and the complex interactions we found in our study are
reduce antisocial workplace behavior by implementing better explained by a dierential tendency among certain
stress and anger management programs specically tar- groups of people (e.g., those who are exposed to low
geted toward lower status employees. levels of aggressive behavior and who also occupy high
rather than low status positions) to systematically un-
5.3. Limitations derreport engaging in antisocial behavior rather than
the theoretical mechanisms we have proposed.
Like all studies, ours has limitations that deserve In short, despite the limitations stated above, we be-
comment. One is the cross-sectional nature of the de- lieve our study makes a unique contribution to the lit-
sign. Since we did not collect data over time, we cannot erature by showing that both individual level and
establish the direction of causality. It may be that an- contextual variables matter in predicting antisocial be-
tisocial behavior leads to identity threat, rather than havior as a function of identity-threatening events. So
the other way around. However, much of the theoriz- while most people feel compelled to defend themselves
ing on antisocial behavior presumes, as we do, that against threatened self-identities, some may experience
these acts occur in response to some triggering event or and act upon this need more often and perhaps with
series of events (e.g., the self-reported frequency of greater intensity than others.
K. Aquino, S. Douglas / Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 90 (2003) 195208 207

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