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Study Investigates Why Public Employees Break Rules

Casey Fleming discusses his research with an attendee of the 2016 Graduate Research Symposium.

Are some rules meant to be broken?

Employees in all industries break workplace rules from time to time. After years of working in government and social services, Casey Fleming wondered why.

Fleming, a Public Administration doctoral student at NC State, surveyed state government social service workers about their rule-breaking habits, designating a difference between pro-social rule breaking — transgressions meant to positively impact others — and destructive rule breaking. Fleming presented his study at the NC State Graduate Student Research Symposium and spoke with us about why government employees break rules and how — and if — employers should prevent such behavior.

Q: What inspired you to research rule breaking among public employees?

A: Prior to entering the Ph.D. program in Public Administration here at NC State, I worked for over eight years in state government within correctional and social services agencies. During that time, I quickly realized that formal work rules in many public social services organizations are expansive, some say encyclopedic, with policy and procedure manuals aimed at addressing every possible scenario with a tidy directive or prohibition. As my career progressed, however, I noticed that not all rules are created equally, in both their quality and their consequences, and that many rules conflict with others, unduly restrict workers’ discretion, and can generally prevent the achievement of outcomes that the agency wants for its clients. Thus, we break rules.

But, just as all rules are not created equally, nor is all rule breaking. For instance, sometimes we might break work rules to better assist a client, help a struggling coworker with their duties, or save our organization money — behavior we call pro-social rule breaking. However, sometimes we might break work rules to work less than is expected, frustrate others in and out of the organization, or to resist an agency mission we do not support — behavior we call destructive or self-interested rule breaking. In all, I was and am curious about what personal and situational factors lead to more and less rule breaking driven by these two disparate underlying motivations.

Q: How did you collect your data? What were you analyzing from it?

A: In August 2015, I launched an original survey I developed during my previous three to four semesters of doctoral study. The 20-minute web-based questionnaire was distributed to over 660 social workers employed in state government social services and delivering child protective services in a Southeastern U.S. state, resulting in 288 usable cases (n=288; 45% response). Prior to launching the survey project, I worked with agency administrators to gain access to their employees, but also to ensure that my needs as a researcher could serve their interests in collecting related information.

The survey aimed to get a snapshot of what rule breaking “looks like” in this organization, in both social workers’ general attitudes toward rule breaking and their actual self-reported pro-social and destructive rule breaking behaviors in the workplace. My study tests a framework of hypothesized predictors of both forms of rule breaking that includes: individual factors (such as personality or commitment), coworker and direct supervisor influences, and organizational factors (such as structure or control mechanisms). The study pits these variables against each other in a way, a strategy to begin to determine which sets of predictors are arguably most and least important in predicting pro-social and destructive rule breaking.

Q: What have been your most interesting findings?

A: I think there are several interesting findings from this research. First, results indicate that pro-social and destructive rule breaking are predicted by different sets of variables in the framework. Generally, this study finds pro-social rule breaking is influenced by supervisory influences and organizational factors, whereas destructive rule breaking is largely driven by individual factors and co-worker and supervisory influences. These findings suggest that “not all rule breaking is rule breaking,” in that it is important to examine the underlying motivations of such non-compliance with work rules.

Second, results indicate that higher quality work relationships with direct supervisors increases not only pro-social rule breaking (as hypothesized), but also destructive rule breaking, a most unexpected finding. This suggests that employees enjoying higher quality leader-member relationships might be willing to “do whatever it takes” to “pay back” their supportive bosses and otherwise maintain these close relationships. Alternatively, these same individuals might believe that their supervisors will “bail them out” for any rule breaking at work regardless of their motivations.

Third, findings reveal that deterrence mechanisms — the certainty of detection and severity of punishment — suppress pro-social rule breaking, but not destructive rule breaking. This unexpected finding suggests that destructive rule breakers might have “gotten away with it” in the past, have more confidence in their abilities to conceal violations, or simply do not fear the sanctions. In all, however, this finding is bad news for those who contend that entrepreneurial public servants — here, pro-social rule breakers — can add value to public organizations and their missions.

Q: What are the implications of your findings?

A: Pro-social and destructive rule breaking have distinct managerial implications. For instance, destructive rule breaking associated with a particular rule, situational context or employee profile may indicate critical issues with employee oversight, monitoring mechanisms, or direct supervision strategies. Alternatively, pro-social rule breaking strongly associated with particular rules and contexts may suggest excessively burdensome rules, employee training deficiencies or problematic organizational cultures or climates.

Within public administration, debate continues around the problematic nature of unelected street-level workers’ discretion — here, the decision to follow the letter of the rule or not — within our American democracy. For those policymakers and senior agency administrators that find any rule violations in conflict with our democratic ideals, political accountability, or simply efficient public management, the variables of this framework that suppress rule breaking offer some encouraging, potentially important levers for increasing compliance with workplace rules.

This study’s findings have implications for the ways in which public managers build and maintain work relationships with their subordinates. Results show that employees involved in high quality leader-member relationships with their bosses report higher levels of both pro-social and destructive rule breaking. This suggests that public managers do indeed influence their subordinates’ attitudes and behaviors, an encouraging finding for management broadly as a field of inquiry and practice. However, it also highlights the need for supervisors to remain dedicated to oversight responsibilities and mindful of messages of expectations around rules to their employees, even more so for those with whom they share stronger or closer work relationships.

Q: What impact have your professors and faculty advisers had on your research?

A: Many of my professors in the Department of Public Administration and other Humanities and Social Sciences departments really created classroom environments that forced me to wrestle with the task of leveraging our existing theoretical and empirical literatures to ask important questions and design creative, sound research projects to begin answering them (or perhaps part of them to start, let’s say).

I learn best by doing. Luckily for me, I am fortunate to have a dissertation committee that is supportive, yet demanding, and pushes me to be more comfortable with the struggles of research, willing to go it alone, and confident in my own understanding and abilities. I like to (half) jokingly say that my dissertation chair, Dr. Jerrell Coggburn, is a professor with whom chats of any length always produce good answers and even better questions.

Q: How has your research enriched your graduate studies?

A: Again, I learn best by doing. Beyond my dissertation research, I served as a research assistant under Dr. Branda Nowell of the Department of Public Administration and Dr. Toddi Steelman (now of the University of Saskatchewan) on the Firechasers Project, an ongoing research program seeking to better understand the social aspects of interagency response to and building community resilience around large-scale wildfires. This invaluable assignment gave me the opportunities to see what a National Science Foundation-funded project looks like from the inside and to develop my research skills, including survey design and implementation, data management, interviewing and field work.

Q: What do you intend to do after you complete your graduate studies?

A: As I graduate this semester, I intend to seek job opportunities within both academia and research organizations that will allow me to continue my research and teaching interests in public administration and management. Additionally, I continue the process of transitioning my dissertation work into publishable manuscripts as well as planning my next project exploring work rules.

Q: What advice would you give to students starting research for the first time?

A: Do not isolate yourself. Engage your colleagues in discussions about your research (and theirs, of course). Create a culture of sorts wherein you all know what others are into and studying. You’ll find that they will send you random ideas about your work they’ve hatched or an article they discover that might be helpful to you (and, of course, you’ll return such favor). I truly believe growing into a good researcher is necessarily a social endeavor in large part.