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UW Professor’s Research on Ethical Electronic Monitoring of Employees Receives National Award

August 5, 2021
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Chase Thiel

A University of Wyoming faculty member and four colleagues’ research that examines the effect of electronically monitoring employees was selected as the top paper for practical impact by the Organizational Behavior (OB) Division of the Academy of Management.

Chase Thiel, an associate professor of management and the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative Collegiate Program Professor of Business Ethics in UW’s College of Business, was the lead author of the paper, titled “Stripped of Agency: The Paradoxical Effect of Employee Monitoring on Deviance.” The article won the OB Division’s Outstanding Practical Implications for Management Paper Award.

The Academy of Management is the largest organization for management faculty worldwide, and the OB Division is the academy’s largest with more than 5,000 members.

Established in 1936, the Academy of Management, a professional association for scholars of management and organizations, publishes several academic journals, organizes conferences, and provides other forums for management professors and managers to communicate research and ideas.

Thiel conducted the research with Julena Bonner, from Utah State University; the University of Missouri’s John Bush; Niharika Garud, from the University of Melbourne in Melbourne, Australia; and David Welsh, from Arizona State University.

“The award announcement that my co-authors and I won came as a complete surprise,” Thiel says. “The Organizational Behavior Division is the academy’s largest, and it receives so many high-quality papers each year for consideration. It is an honor to be recognized among many excellent scholars.”

Drawing upon social cognitive theory, the marketing professors’ research shows that -- contrary to popular opinion and claims by monitoring software companies -- monitoring actually has the potential to “increase deviance levels” because it undermines employees’ sense of agency that creates feelings of responsibility for moral behavior.

“The research reaffirms that the best deterrent to employee workplace deviance is the employees’ own sense of moral responsibility, and employee monitoring is potentially problematic because it has the potential to erode that personal sense of responsibility and replace it with external regulation,” Thiel says.

Whereas the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated workplace trends -- such as remote work -- that are driving a sharp increase in the already prevalent practice of electronically monitoring employees, the research findings have important implications for business organizations, the researchers say.

More prominently, the management professors caution employers against hasty adoption of monitoring systems, as doing so may result in more of the behavior they would like to prevent through employee monitoring.

As a “silver lining,” the research also found that when employers treat their employees fairly overall, the implementation of monitoring systems is not as problematic, because employees do not see the monitoring as a tool to undermine “their personal agency” -- which refers to one’s capability to originate and direct actions for given purposes.

A member of the award selection committee noted that the research is “necessary, both from an ethical and a practical perspective, and has the largest potential to make a significant impact in the real world.”

Thiel agrees with the assessment.

“I am so happy that our work was recognized with this award because, above all, I want my work to have practical value and be useful to current organizations,” he adds.

Thiel joined the UW College of Business faculty in 2016 and serves as a content expert in the areas of human resource management, organizational behavior and business ethics. His primary research examines unethical behavior in the workplace, with a special emphasis on understanding the causes of unethical behavior through a behavioral lens; expanding current definitions and measures of unethical behavior; identifying practices that encourage ethical behavior; and understanding the role and tactics of ethical leaders in the creation and maintenance of ethical workplaces.

His research has appeared or is forthcoming in leading management journals, such as the Journal of Applied Psychology; Personnel Psychology; Journal of Management; Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes; The Leadership Quarterly; and the Journal of Business Ethics.

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