Sept. 20, 2009 — -- Promises are made to be broken -- especially if you're the boss. Workers don't care so much about whether their employers deliver on specific promises, according to the latest research in organizational psychology. What matters most are the rewards and opportunities they end up getting, even if they were initially promised more.
Most psychologists have assumed that broken promises in the workplace spell serious discontent. But previous studies have tended to record workers' perceptions about such breaches, without determining what promises were actually made.
To disentangle perception from reality, Samantha Montes and David Zweig of the University of Toronto in Canada began by asking students to put themselves in the shoes of hypothetical job candidates.
Half the students were informed that the recruiter made seven specific promises -- about bonuses, training, support with personal problems, and so on -- while half were not. Then the students read about what had happened to the imaginary employees three years down the line, when the employer had delivered all seven inducements, five of them, or just three.
More than 550 students clearly understood the scenarios described, yet their perceptions of the situations were influenced more by the number of inducements given than by whether any specific promises had been made.
Next, Montes and Zweig asked workers with a variety of occupations to fill in a questionnaire about their own expectations of how likely an employer was to deliver the same inducements, before running an experiment with the same hypothetical scenario.
Even after controlling statistically for prior expectations, more than 440 workers who completed the experiment delivered the same message: keeping promises matters much less than absolute rewards.
Montes argues that people's responses to such hypothetical situations -- where it is possible to manipulate the outcomes in an ethical way -- are likely to reflect what would happen in the workplace. "If you really get them to visualize themselves in that scenario, you can get very close reactions to how they'd really behave," she says.
When the Boss Breaks Promises
To confirm that a similar picture emerged in the real world, the researchers recruited students at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, who were enrolled on courses that included four months of paid work experience.
Before starting their placements, the students were asked to rate the promises they had been offered. Three months into the job, more than 380 of the students reported what inducements they had in fact received, and the extent to which they felt promises had been broken.
Again, perceptions of broken promises depended mainly on what was delivered, rather than any discrepancy with what they earlier reported had eventually been offered.
Montes hopes the results will encourage employers to concentrate on delivering good conditions and rewards, rather than promising workers next to nothing in the mistaken belief that delivering a little more than was offered will be appreciated.
But will unscrupulous recruiters see the findings as a license to throw truth to the winds when making promises to prospective employees? "I certainly hope it isn't interpreted that way," says Montes. "If organizations took it upon themselves to make outrageous promises, employees will definitely start reacting."
Still, some degree of forgiveness for bosses who can't meet their promises makes sense, suggests Lisa Schurer Lambert, an organizational psychologist at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "In a tough economy, employees know that things aren't going to pan out the way that management said," she says. "If they see that management is making an honest, good-faith effort, given the constraints, they'll understand."