Does it pay to be a loyal employee? Research says it may result in more work

If you’re a loyal worker, you’re also likely to be an exploited worker. 

That’s the key takeaway from a new study led by Matthew Stanley, a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Stanley’s findings appeared in a recent issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology — and the title of the paper pretty much says it all: “Loyal Workers Are Selectively And Ironically Targeted For Exploitation.”

Stanley’s research involved asking hundreds of managers to determine how much work to dole out among employees in fictional scenarios. In the experiments, the employee who was identified as “loyal” was consistently asked to do unpaid work and take on additional job tasks more often than a worker described as “disloyal.” What’s more, the “loyal” employee was also given unpaid work more often than workers described as “honest” or “fair.”

And the more work that a loyal employee did, the greater the chance the employee would be asked to do, well, even more, according to Stanley and his fellow researchers. In short, it’s a vicious cycle. 

Stanley told MarketWatch that some managers may be exploiting loyal workers simply because they can, but it’s not always that cut and dried. In other cases, they may be blind as to what they’re asking of loyal employees, and are simply worried about getting the job done. 

“I think it’s natural to assume managers are malicious people, but that’s not necessarily true,” Stanley said. 

Stanley said it may also be tempting to say workers would be better served by acting less loyal, but he stops short of making any such declaration. Loyalty is still a valued trait, and employees can benefit in many situations from going the extra mile, Stanley said.

“The message is not to do as little as you can in all possible circumstances,” he noted. 

Still, employers should take heed of the study’s conclusions, and build in checks and balances to make sure workers aren’t exploited, Stanley said. 

“It’s a matter of setting up institutional barriers to prevent this sort of thing from happening,” he concluded. 

Workplace expert Danielle Boris wasn’t surprised by the study’s findings. But she suggested that if companies really want to avoid the trap of overburdening loyal employees, then they should think not just in terms of the amount of work they’re asking of them, but also the kind of work. 

Boris, who is founder of Sandbox, a human-resources tech platform, suggested that if the work is meaningful and helps the loyal employee feel a sense of accomplishment, then it will serve both the employee and employer’s purposes. But the converse is also true, she warned

“If we pile on work that’s just random work, the employee may get burnt out,” she said.

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