Popular employees receive favorable attention at work, UF study finds

Published: January 15 2009

Category:Business, Research

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Remember the cool kids back in high school who always seemed to get all the breaks, even from some people who actually hated them?

Turns out that magic mojo caries right on past graduation and into the workplace.

A new University of Florida study finds that popular employees are treated better by their co-workers than those low in the social pecking order, even when some people secretly dislike them.

“The workplace is not supposed to be a popularity contest, but clearly there are winners and losers,” said Brent Scott, who did the research for his dissertation in management at UF and is now a management professor at Michigan State University. “This may have repercussions for employee satisfaction and worker productivity, and may even lead to higher job turnover if it remains unchecked.”

The study, scheduled to be published in the January issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that employees were more likely to do things such as adjust their schedules to accommodate a co-worker’s request for time off or help someone make up work after being absent if the person happened to be popular.

Popular employees also were less likely to be insulted, shunned by their colleagues or to encounter other rude and disrespectful treatment, said Scott, who did the research with UF management professor Timothy Judge. The results have important implications in today’s workplace, where teamwork is increasingly practiced and valued, Scott said.

“If a person becomes so miserable at being ostracized from the group, they may self-select out, seeking employment elsewhere,” he said.

Although many studies have explored the topic of popularity in childhood, little research has looked at how it affects adults in an office environment, Scott said.

“I wanted to see whether it still mattered because it certainly does when you’re young,” he said. “Kids strive to be popular in school and are sometimes made fun of when they’re not.”

Apparently, the significance of being popular persists in adulthood, although perhaps in less overt ways than during the teenage years, Scott said. “Old habits die hard, and I think the practice of ranking individuals socially in terms of whom we’re drawn to and would like to hang out with sticks with us when we enter a new work group,” he said.

Popular employees may be considered fun to be with, but the value of associating with them, at least from a practical standpoint, is more likely their potential to boost a co-worker’s own popularity, he said.

“Even if they personally dislike them, employees may act nice toward popular people out of a desire to bask in their reflective glory and share in their social status,” he said.

Two groups of employees were surveyed for the study. The first consisted of 116 undergraduate students – 62 women and 54 men – at a Southeastern university who worked at least 20 hours per week in a variety of jobs, including restaurant servers, sales associates and administrative assistants. In the second group were 139 full-time health care employees – 93 women and 46 men – at a large hospital in the Southeast who performed much of their work in teams.

Participants in both surveys agreed who within their work group was popular. Those deemed popular by their peers reported receiving favorable treatment from co-workers, even after taking into account their job status and how much they were liked, Scott said. In other words, it was not just their job status or how much they were personally liked by a given co-worker that predicted receiving favorable treatment, it was how popular they were, he said.

The second survey also found that self-confident employees and those with jobs placing them in a central role of working with large numbers of employees tended to be popular, he said. The findings suggest the need for managers to recognize the contributions of less popular but otherwise valued employees that may go unnoticed, he said. If two employees perform their jobs equally well, some might question whether it is fair that one has advantages simply for being more popular than the other, he said.

“On the one hand, many jobs have a social component and popular employees are better at navigating the social aspects of work,” he said. “Conversely, organizations are not country clubs and valuing popularity may promote a certain ‘clubby’ atmosphere that mimics school cultures that one can hope has matured beyond the adolescent milieu.”

Joyce Bono, a University of Minnesota professor in human resources and industrial relations, said the study is “provocative and challenges us to gain a better understanding of the role of informal social relationships at work on employee attitudes and behavior.”


Cathy Keen, ckeen@ufl.edu, 352-392-0186
Brent Scott, scott@bus.msu.edu, 517-432-7725

Category:Business, Research