What Is Employee Resenteeism in the Workplace?

Unhappy man with head in hands sitting at his desk at work with piles of paper next to him.

I study how people feel about their jobs, so I was intrigued the other day when I came across the term resenteeism. It made me wonder what is employee resenteeism in the workplace? As I dug into it, I realized that it is another case of the jangle fallacy–coming up with new terms for old concepts. Academics love to do that, as inventing a new term, even for an old idea, can get your work noticed. This occurs in the media as well, as people throw out old ideas with new keywords in hopes of drawing readers to their websites. When it comes to unhappy employees, last year we had quiet quitting. This year it’s resenteeism.

What Is Employee Resenteeism?

Resenteeism refers to disguntled employees who are unhappy at work and are not shy about expressing it. Eight-five years ago the Hawthorne Studies researchers wrote about the phenomenon. They noted how some workers, who they called chronic kickers, couldn’t be made happy. They would complain to the researchers about an issue. The researchers would take it to management and get it fixed, but no matter how much better things got, the kickers would continue to complain. In more recent years we refer to unhappy employees as being dissatisfied, disengaged, and lacking commitment. What might distinguish the idea of resenteeism perhaps is that it implies people who are willing to share their displeasure, but at the end of the day, we are talking about unhappy employees who are dissatisfied with their jobs.

What Leads to Employee Dissatisfaction and Resentment?

An individual’s job satisfaction is determined by three types of factors

  • Personality. The Hawthorne researchers were perhaps the first to note that people differ in their tendency to be dissatisfied. Decades of research that followed has identified many individual factors that determine in part whether someone is happy at work or not. Some studies even hint at a genetic component–identical twins separated at birth and raised in different families have similar job satisfaction as adults.
  • Work Environment. Some jobs are just better than others in terms of pay, fringe benefits, nature of job tasks, physical environment, treatment by supervisors, and a host of other things. The physical and social work environment has a lot to do with people’s satisfaction.
  • Person-Job Fit. I learned the importance of matching the person to the job the summer between graduating high school and beginning college. I got a job in a contact lens factory as an assembler. I worked a lathe and a polishing machine. I have had many jobs in my life, and this was clearly the worst–low pay, high structure (I had to punch a time clock), and it was extremely boring and repetitive. But my experience was not the same as my coworkers. One guy was particularly cheerful so one day I asked him why. He said he loved the job for all the reasons I hated it. There were few cognitive demands, the tasks were easy, and he was fine with the structure. He performed a skilled manual task that gave him satisfaction. That conversation was my introduction to what I would later learn was industrial-organizational psychology. It made me realize the importance of matching the person to the job when it came to maximizing job satisfaction.

Reducing Employee Resenteeism

It is important to maximize job satisfaction and reduce “resenteeism” because unhappy employees can be at risk for misbehavior, poor performance, and turnover. The best strategy is to consider that satisfaction is the byproduct of people and the work environment. It begins by hiring the right people for each job in terms of their skills and interests. Do not hire people in a customer-facing role who do not like dealing with people. Do not hire people for a back-office role if they prefer dealing with people. Pay attention to working conditions, and do not allow toxic work environments to persist. People who are abusive to others should be corrected through a progressive discipline approach that goes through a series of increasingly harsh actions in an attempt to get the person to change their behavior. Be sure to treat everyone fairly. While eliminating employee resenteeism is an important goal, it is aspirational. No matter how good working conditions are, there will always be individuals who are unhappy. Some people might just be a poor fit to the job and/or the working environment. Nevertheless, efforts to end resenteeism will create a better organization for everyone.

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1 Reply to “What Is Employee Resenteeism in the Workplace?”

  1. Thank you for saying the quiet part outloud about renaming an exisiting concept which often leads to mainstream attention. This was a helpful read as a student of IO and as a business owner. Thank you.

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