Personality and Workplace Deviance: Big Five Versus HEXACO

Key Points:

  1. Scientists have been studying personality at work for a century and they’ve created some fantastic measures of personality like the Big Five and the HEXACO.
  2. A recent meta-analysis examined which assessment was better at predicting deviant work behaviour, the newer HEXACO model or the much more established Big Five model. They found that the HEXACO was 1.5 times better at predicting deviant work behaviour thanthe Big Five model.
  3. Using the right tool for the job is incredibly important where it comes to using assessments to predict work outcomes. If you’re trying to prevent deviance from occurring in your workplace, the HEXACO seems to be a better tool for you to use.

Scientists have studied the connection between personality and behavior at work for more than 100 years. One focus has been how certain personality traits may lead to harmful behavior in the workplace, known as workplace deviance. This includes things like breaking company equipment or bullying coworkers, which can hurt the business and also lead to lower morale, job satisfaction, and wellbeing for employees. This is important because it can impact the overall health of the workplace and hurt profits. By understanding how personality traits may be linked to deviant behavior, organizations can better prevent and react to it to protect their people and their business.

Deviance at Work

Deviant behavior at work can be categorized as either organizational (stealing, sabotage, producing substandard work) or interpersonal (gossiping, bullying, harassment). The difference is whether the organization or its members are directly victimized, but usually there is shared victimization and fallout. For example, damaging shared property makes work harder for others, and bullying damages morale.

Workplace deviance is mainly caused by two factors: the work environment (abusive supervisors, oppressive conditions, fatigue) and personality differences. Personality is the strongest predictor of deviant behavior, and reliable personality assessments like the Big Five and HEXACO can help organizations screen potential employees and predict the likelihood of deviant behavior. This informs hiring decisions and helps build a work culture that accommodates different personalities.

The Two Most Predictive and Best Studied Models of Personality

The Big Five is a widely studied personality model that includes five domains: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. The HEXACO is a newer personality model that includes six domains: Honesty-Humility, Emotional Stability, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness. The two models differ in some ways, including the Honesty-Humility domain that is not assessed by the Big Five but is associated with workplace deviance. It is unclear which model is a better predictor of workplace deviance or other work-related outcomes.

For these and other reasons, Organizational Psychologists Jan Pletzer, Margriet Bentvelzen, Janneke Oostrom, & Reinout De Vries decided to aggregate all the available scientific evidence to perform a meta-analysis to properly investigate which model of personality – the Big Five or the HEXACO – would be able to better predict workplace deviance.  But they didn’t stop there. Together, these researchers also proposed that there were important differences in the relationship between personality traits and workplace deviance on the basis of whether the workplace deviance was organizational or interpersonal in nature and depending on who was providing the scores indicating the level of deviance.

The authors found differences between the two models of personality in predicting workplace deviance. The HEXACO model was 1.5 times better at predicting it than the Big Five model. Honesty-Humility in HEXACO was the strongest predictor of workplace deviance. The authors suggest employers use the HEXACO model in hiring as it is better suited for work environments, given the importance of Honesty and Humility. While the Big Five is an established model, the HEXACO has meaningful differences that make it a better tool in predicting workplace deviance.

While the HEXACO Honesty-Humility domain is the most important predictor of workplace deviance, Openness to Experience and Extraversion do not predict workplace deviance. On the other hand, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness and Neuroticism are also significant predictors of workplace deviance. There is also a negative correlation between Conscientiousness and workplace deviance. Individuals who score highly in the Conscientiousness domain are disciplined, hardworking and goal driven and therefore refrain from acting deviantly, because deviance usually is rather impulsive and it tends to hinder goal attainment in the long-term.

Pletzer and colleagues found crucial differences between organizational and interpersonal deviance. Conscientiousness was more strongly related to Organizational Deviance, while Agreeableness was more strongly related to Interpersonal Deviance. Openness to Experience, Extraversion, and Neuroticism showed no difference in correlation depending on the type of deviance. These findings can inform leaders and practitioners on how to better refine hiring criteria for organizations experiencing high levels of theft or incivility.

Pletzer and colleagues found that the provider of ratings for workplace deviance matters, with self-ratings showing stronger relationships to personality traits of conscientiousness and agreeableness. This emphasizes the importance of considering the source of ratings in the future, as either self- or other-ratings may be more accurate. However, more research is needed to confirm these findings.

To apply the findings in a work setting, practitioners can use trait activation theory by creating cues in the environment that activate desirable traits and limit cues that trigger undesirable traits. Personality assessments can also be incorporated into the selection process to prevent those with negative traits from entering the company.

The meta-analysis has limitations, as all the data is from cross-sectional studies, meaning the direction of the relationship between personality and deviance cannot be determined. However, given the evidence that personality is relatively unchanging, it is likely that personality contributes to workplace deviance. Longitudinal studies could clarify this issue.

Takeaways for you and your practice

Not all models of personality are suitable for use in the workplace.  Some, like the MBTI, explicitly state on their website that they aren’t valid for use in a work context, to hire or select employees, or make critical decisions on their basis.  However, the best studied and most thoroughly validated models of personality that we have today, the Big Five and the HEXACO have routinely been shown to be predictive of many aspects of our work and lives. But even the best studied model of personality, The Big Five, isn’t immune to gradual advances in science and technology and it seems that, at least in some ways, the HEXACO has some features that make it better suited to certain tasks over the Big Five.  This seems to clearly be the case, specifically, where it comes to predicting negative workplace behaviours like deviance. So what does this tell us in practical terms?  Here are a few key points to take back to the office:

·       Workplace deviance comes in two forms, one that directly impacts the organization and one that directly impacts interpersonal relationships.  Both are harmful to the organization’s profitability, operation, and social dynamics within.

·       Reliable and validated personality assessments (like the HEXACO and Big Five) can be great predictors of organizational outcomes like workplace deviance.

·       Not all personality tools are the same and they shouldn’t be treated equally. Different models of personality are different in their reliability and validity and even in the case of two very similar models of personality (The Big Five and the HEXACO) they can differ a great deal in their ability to predict work related outcomes like workplace deviance.

·       It’s important to choose the right tool for the job, using the best available evidence for your specific purpose.

.     This research clearly shows why a researcher, practitioner, consultant, or business leader may choose one model of personality to work with over another.  In the case of workplace deviance, the HEXACO model of personality should clearly be used over the Big Five.

·       Knowing which form of deviance, you’re most focused on trying to manage (organizational or interpersonal) may help you to better prioritize what personality traits you’re interested in honing in on.

·       Personality assessments and models can be helpful to minimize workplace deviance by being incorporated into larger, holistic hiring systems and through managing organizational cues to elicit desirable traits and inhibit undesirable traits.

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The trustworthiness of the study is of a moderate standard and quality (80%). This means there is a 20% chance that alternative explanations for the effect found are possible.

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Pletzer, J. L., Bentvelzen, M., Oostrom, J., & De Vries, R. E. (2019). A meta-analysis of the relations between personality and workplace deviance: Big Five versus HEXACO. Journal of Vocational Behavior. doi:10.1016/j.jvb.2019.04.004 

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