Management: Four things managers should bear in mind before agreeing to individual working arrangements

January 10, 2020

Elise Marescaux, Professor of Human Resources Management at IÉSEG, recently co-authored some new research looking at co-worker reactions to individual work arrangements that employees may negotiate with their supervisor.

The article entitled Co-worker reactions to i-deals through the lens of social comparison: The role of fairness and emotions (co-authored with Sophie De Winne and Yasin Rofcanin) has been published online in the journal Human Relations. We spoke to Elise Marescaux about the findings of this research, the potential side effects of such deals, and practical advice for managers to bear in mind before agreeing to i-deals.

What exactly are i-deals and why have you decided to research this topic?

I-deals are individual work arrangements that employees negotiate with their supervisor. They can take many different forms. For example providing employees with access to a unique training program, an exceptional bonus or pay raise, greater flexibility in work hours and work location, or enabling them to take on tasks that are more challenging and assignments that meet their preferences.

Usually, employees negotiate this with their supervisor because they feel they have a specific need that is unmet and/or as a reward for their contribution to the company. From the perspective of the recipient, i-deals have the potential of bringing many benefits to companies, such as increased motivation, loyalty, engagement and performance. Yet, in this study, we were interested in the potential side effects of i-deals for those employees who do not receive them and are witnessing someone in their team negotiate an i-deal. In other words, we take the perspective of co-workers in the negotiation of i-deals.

This topic has so far been under researched, as we know very little about how co-workers react when they witness someone receiving an i-deal in their work environment.

What were the main findings of the paper?

In our paper, we bring different theoretical perspectives together to make a number of key arguments.

We believe that co-worker reactions, whether positive or negative, can be traced back to a process of social comparison. When an employee receives an i-deal, co-workers are likely to compare their own situation with that of the recipient, to evaluate whether their own situation is (un) favorable (compared to the recipient). This triggers questions of fairness, such that co-workers will evaluate whether their situation (how favorable or unfavorable it may be) is fair.

Depending on the answer, co-workers will feel certain emotions and – subsequently – react in a certain manner.

Imagine a situation in which a co-worker feels disadvantaged because of the i-deal, yet believes that it is well deserved, as the recipient of the i-deal has worked hard to deserve the arrangement.

In this case, the co-worker might feel envious but in a “benign” way. He/she will be motivated to work harder to attain the same or a different kind of arrangement. This creates a win-win situation, as both the recipient and co-worker react positively.

In contrast, however, if the co-worker believes that the i-deal was not fairly obtained and there is no legitimate reason for it, he/she might feel resentment towards the recipient. This would eventually result in counterproductive behaviors, such as reduced effort at work or even antisocial behavior. In our paper, we explain the myriad ways in which co-workers can react, positively or negatively, and what drives these reactions.

What are the main implications/applications for managers in companies/organisations?

When a manager is approached by an employee because he/she wants to negotiate a specific individual deal, there are many different factors that should be considered before saying yes or no. I would like to outline four of them below:

(1) Is there a legitimate reason behind the request, for example a unique need that no one else has or exceptional performance that would justify receiving a unique reward? If so, then gaining the acceptance and positive reactions from co-workers will be much easier.

(2) How is your relationship with the employees in your team? If you have strong social ties with your employees characterized by mutual trust and support, i-deals are easier to communicate to and are more likely to be accepted by co-workers.

(3) How is the relationship between the employee asking for the i-deal and his/her team members? Again, if there are strong social ties between this employee and the others, an i-deal is easier to communicate to and to be accepted by co-workers.

(4) Finally, what kind of co-workers do you have in your team? Co-workers with a prosocial mind, implying that they are heavily focused on others’ well-being and show care towards others, are more likely to be accepting towards i-deals, especially when they address a specific need. In contrast, co-workers with a pro-self mind, who are more focused on their own well-being and situation, are more likely to react negatively towards i-deals, especially when the deal puts them in an unfavorable position.

*Co-worker reactions to i-deals through the lens of social comparison: The role of fairness and emotions, (Human Relations 2019), Elise Marescaux (IÉSEG School of Management), Sophie De Winne (Faculty of Economics and Business, KU Leuven,), Yasin Rofcanin (University of Bath)

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