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Journal of Business Research 116 (2020) 314–323

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You’re offended, I’m offended! An empirical study of the proclivity to be T

offended and what it says about employees’ attitudes and behaviors
Jeremy B. Bernerth
Department of Management, Fowler College of Business, San Diego State University, 5500 Campanile Drive, San Diego, CA 92182, USA


Keywords: For all the news stories devoted to individuals taking offense to various issues, little is known about these
Sensitivity individuals or their work-related habits. To address this important gap in organizational and societal knowledge,
Societal trends the reported research draws on cognitive interference theory to define and measure the proclivity to be offended
Political correctness (PTBO). This measure was hypothesized to serve as an off-task stimuli, and results of a time-separated multi-
Moral outrage
source study found PTBO negatively relates to employees’ task performance and citizenship behavior, and po-
sitively relates to counterproductive behavior, as rated by one’s supervisor. PTBO also had implications for
Workplace attitudes employees’ self-reported job satisfaction and workplace engagement. Building on the idea that PTBO may also
influence the way employees view their organization’s actions, overall organizational justice was hypothesized
and found to mediate the relationship between PTBO and both employees’ behavior and attitudes. Implications
for managers and organizations concerned with modern societal movements are discussed.

1. Introduction Despite rapidly growing media attention to these issues, systematic

empirical research exploring the work-related implications of political
Managers are increasingly working in politically-charged contexts. and social issues, including the increasingly common tendency to be
Polls show citizens of many countries are more polarized today than offended by a vast array of events and traditions, is mostly nonexistent.
ever before (e.g., Hook, 2017) and that these political divisions in- What little research that does exist is largely anecdotal in nature and/or
creasingly arise in and affect the workplace (McCarthy, 2017). As po- relies on retrospective mono-sourced judgements (Lilienfeld, 2017).
litical divisions grow, so too do reports of people taking offense to Related to this dearth of empirical research is the absence of theoretical
politically or socially sensitive events and issues (see Campbell & explanations for why such issues may relate to important workplace
Manning, 2015; Hess, 2016). Whereas acquiescing to these sensitivities outcomes. Arguments to date instead rely mainly on unsubstantiated
is lauded by some as “a force for promoting positive social outcomes,” emotionally-driven claims that do little to explain why these actions
others call into question the altruistic portrayal of outrage over per- and tendencies might relate to such outcomes. This is particularly
ceived social injustices (Rothschild & Keefer, 2017, p. 209). This di- problematic for organizational scholars and practitioners as millions of
vergence of views translates into two contrasting perspectives regarding dollars are currently spent on addressing these issues (Fisher, 2015;
the implications for employees and organizations: one perspective holds Gates, 2014) without evidence suggesting such capital expenditures are
that proactively limiting perceived injustices and offenses may benefit necessary or beneficial.
both employees and organizations as it helps employees to adaptively Given the importance of these issues, the reported research ex-
respond to the environment and thus advance their careers, while or- amines the proclivity to be offended (PTBO) by social events and tra-
ganizations likewise benefit as they send a message to the public that ditions and how this tendency relates to important organizational
they are concerned with redressing historical injustices and thus attract considerations. This study specifically develops a new measure labeled
better applicants and a larger proportion of the market (Marques, the proclivity to be offended and explores behavioral and attitudinal
2009). The other perspective suggests individuals and organizations are outcomes of this new measure drawing upon cognitive interference
overly sensitive, and that “politically correct” stances and behaviors theory (Sarason, 1984) as an overarching theoretical framework to
stifle communication and distract the individual and organization from explain the relationship between the new measure and workplace
developing competencies (Diplock, 2005; Hofstede, 2006; Schwartz, phenomena vis-à-vis a key mediating mechanism, namely, perceptions
2010). of organizational justice. In doing so, this study makes a number of

E-mail address:
Received 23 November 2019; Received in revised form 15 May 2020; Accepted 18 May 2020
0148-2963/ © 2020 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
J.B. Bernerth Journal of Business Research 116 (2020) 314–323

important contributions to organization scholarship and practice. First, benefit the individuals within an organization (Organ, Podsakoff, &
this study systematically explores an issue at the forefront of political MacKenzie, 2006). Sportsmanship also represents discretionary beha-
and societal debate which is virtually ignored in the organization and vior, but unlike OCBI, sportsmanship is aimed at the organization and
business literatures. This study also offers a theoretical explanation for includes maintaining a positive attitude even in the face of unforeseen
why this tendency likely relates to work-related phenomena, and fol- failures or difficulties (Organ et al., 2006; Organ, 1988). In contrast to
lows up this notion with an empirical test of critical relationships with those behaviors that directly and indirectly contribute to an organiza-
time-separated multi-source data. This research consequently answers tion’s success, CWBs represent acts intended to harm an organization’s
calls from practitioners, academic scholars, and the general public (Ely, production process (Robinson & Bennett, 1995; Stewart, Bing, Davison,
Meyerson, & Davidson, 2006; Friedersdorf, 2016; Lilienfeld, 2017; Woehr, & McIntyre, 2009). The final two outcomes, job satisfaction and
Marques, 2009; Rothschild & Keefer, 2017) who express concern over employee engagement, represent critically important workplace atti-
the current state of political correctness and behavior displayed by a tudes that are essential for organizational success (Kataria, Garg, &
large percentage of the population. Rastogi, 2012; Koys, 2001; Ostroff, 1992). Specifically, job satisfaction
represents a positive emotional state resulting from the assessment of
2. Defining a new construct and its nomological network one’s job (Locke, 1976), and engagement represents an individual’s
physical investment into their work role (Rich et al., 2010). These four
Prior to exploring the nomological network of PTBO, it makes sense behaviors and two attitudes are the primary criteria because polemic
to clearly operationalize the construct that is the focus of the present discussions about emerging phenomena like PTBO explicitly suggest
research and distinguish it from analogous terms. PTBO, in the present they relate to critical aspects of workplace productivity such as these
context, represents a state-like tendency to be sensitive to customarily (e.g., Gates, 2014; Lilienfeld, 2017). Cognitive interference theory, as
innocuous societal events and traditions. An example of the type of explained below, also provides an explanation for why these relation-
event viewed offensively under this state is the playing of the United ships likely exist. Thus, there are both practical and theoretical reasons
States’ National Anthem. Once a source of universal pride for for focusing on these outcome variables.
Americans, the national anthem has recently come to symbolize op- For readers unfamiliar with cognitive interference theory (Sarason,
pression in the eyes of certain individuals (Clague, 2016; Payne, 2016). 1984), an overview of existing theoretical and empirical findings can
While this is one example, it is important to note that PTBO as a state- help set the stage for the relationships proposed in this study. The basic
like tendency does not involve merely being offended by a single event idea of cognitive interference theory is that off-task thoughts interfere
or tradition; rather, PTBO is the tendency to view an array of events with concentration and performance by drawing limited processing and
and/or traditions as offensive— thus distinguishing this term from re- sense-making resources away from task-relevant stimuli to task-irrele-
lated topics such as moral outrage. Psychologists define moral outrage vant stimuli (Pierce et al., 1998; Sarason, 1984; Sarason, Sarason,
as feelings of anger aimed at third-party transgressors of morality and Keefe, Hayes, & Shearin, 1986; Vasey & Daleiden, 1996; Yee &
justice standards (Bies, 1987; Rothschild & Keefer, 2017). Whereas in- Vaughan, 1996). Attention is by its very nature a discriminatory process
dividuals high in PTBO are likely to feel that the social events or tra- in which myriad environmental cues are ignored in favor of others
ditions to which they take offense also violate moral or equitable (Smith, 1996). As there are limitations in a person’s ability to process
standards, PTBO addresses a general state-like tendency to be offended internal and external stimuli, any processing devoted to task-irrelevant
by such events whereas moral outrage represents an emotional expres- cues leaves less capacity available to support the execution of task-re-
sion with regards to a specific person’s actions. lated activities (MacLeod, 1996; Sarason, 1984). A broad range of
PTBO is also distinct from two other popular terms used in lexicon conditions contribute to cognitive interference, but existing research is
of social discussion, namely political correctness and microaggressions. clear that stress/worry-related thoughts provide the most powerful
Some might argue PTBO includes aspects of political correctness, which source of interference (Klinger, 1996; MacLeod, 1996; Vasey &
represents the avoidance of language that may exclude, marginalize, or Daleiden, 1996). This is significant for understanding PTBO’s potential
offend members of protected classes, yet PTBO refers not to the act of role in the workplace as being offended is both a stressor and a task-
avoidance but rather a tendency to take offense to certain events and/or irrelevant stimuli. Also significant to understanding the potential role of
traditions. Likewise, PTBO is distinct from the phenomenon of micro- PTBO in the workplace is existing research that indicates stress inter-
aggressions, “subtle snubs, slights, and insults directed toward mino- feres with our reasoning abilities and memory retrieval processes
rities,” women, and other marginalized groups that implicitly commu- (Mueller, 1992; Zeidner, 1998)—two factors clearly important for
nicate hostility (Lilienfeld, 2017, p. 139; see also Sue et al., 2007). performance. Additional research indicates worrisome thoughts have a
PTBO does not necessarily include feelings of hostility nor does the peremptory power, taking precedence over other areas and priming one
reaction need to be elicited by actions directed toward specific minority to focus on aspects of the stimuli not perceived or felt by others (Carver,
groups; rather, it is a cognitive framework set in one’s existing psyche to 1996; Klinger, 1996; Sarason, Pierce, & Sarason, 1996; Yee & Vaughan,
be offended by an array of events or traditions. 1996). Research in various domains conclude cognitive interference is
thereby associated with performance deficits (Beal, Weiss, Barros, &
2.1. PTBO and work-related behavior and attitudes MacDermid, 2005; Coy, O’Brien, Tabaczynski, Northern, & Carels,
2011; McCarthy, Hrabluik, & Jelley, 2009; Mikulincer, 1989; Rafaeli
Having defined and distinguished PTBO from related concepts, it is et al., 2012).
important to turn to the relationship between this phenomenon and Turning to one of the primary criterion organizations care about,
important work-related behavior and attitudes. This study focuses ex- task performance, there appears to be good reason to propose a con-
plicitly on six outcomes variables: task performance, citizenship beha- nection with PTBO. Task performance reflects those activities related to
vior aimed at individuals within an organization (OCBI), maintaining a the execution or maintenance of the organization’s core mission.
positive attitude (also known as sportsmanship), counterproductive Performing task-oriented activities at optimal levels typically relies on
work behaviors (CWBs), employee job satisfaction, and employee en- smooth cognitive functioning across areas of processing and recall
gagement. Task performance represents those actions directly involved (Rafaeli et al., 2012). This includes an ability to put aside worries and
in the achievement of core job tasks whereas citizenship behavior re- preoccupations in addition to an ability to be attentive to what is taking
presents more informal, spontaneous behaviors that support the orga- place around us (Sarason et al., 1986; Sarason, 1984). The proclivity to
nization indirectly by creating an environment conducive to success see offense in ordinarily innocuous events, as a result, likely gets in the
(Rich, LePine, & Crawford, 2010; Williams & Anderson, 1991). OCBI, in way of effective task performance as being offended diverts attentional
particular, represents extra-role and discretionary behaviors that resources away from task-relevant cues and requirements towards the

J.B. Bernerth Journal of Business Research 116 (2020) 314–323

processing of peripheral or secondary cues. The offensive event com- processing offensive events is not the only reason to expect a relation-
petes with and impairs task-relevant thoughts and actions by reducing ship between the two. Organizational justice research suggests in-
the amount of accessible cognitive resources. Rather than focusing on dividuals are “hard-wired” to respond to instances of incivility (i.e.,
task requirements, those high in PTBO are distracted by perceived of- “incivility is an example of unfair treatment” Griffin, 2010, pp.
fenses that seem unjust; moreover, existing research indicates being 312–313) with attempts at retribution (Folger, Cropanzano, &
distracted by worrisome thoughts creates a feeling of helplessness as Goldman, 2005). As being offended shares overlapping properties, a
divided attention prohibits resolving actions (cf. Mikulincer, 1989). connection between PTBO and CWBs seems likely as those offended
Imagine the scenario where an organization is days away from the end may seek out negative reciprocity in an effort to rebalance a perceived
of the quarter; sales numbers are generally good but several sales inequitable situation.
people have yet to reach pre-determined quarterly goals. As meeting
Hypothesis 3. The proclivity to be offended positively relates to CWBs.
sales goals is a substantial part of one’s year-end bonus, those who need
to finalize ongoing conversations with clients need to focus all their Cognitive interference theory suggests that a focus on the offensive
attention on preparing one final pitch that answers all questions and nature of social issues and events distracts employees from performing
removes any remaining doubts. The person offended by everyday oc- at an optimal level, but it also stands to reason that PTBO correlates
currences diverts important and limited cognitive resources away from with individuals’ attitudes. This is because people who experience
the client (and potential sale) towards a task-irrelevant stimuli (cf. cognitive interference report dissatisfaction at an inability to become
Sarason, 1984; Sarason et al., 1986). In this way, PTBO likely harms absorbed in key life events (Sarason et al., 1996). Miller (1996) simi-
task-performance by lessening and interfering with task-related atten- larly notes those with a tendency to monitor and scan the environment
tion. for threatening information (arguably those high in PTBO) do not live a
“‘happy-go-lucky’ life style” (p. 184). By definition, cognitive inter-
Hypothesis 1. The proclivity to be offended negatively relates to task
ference also represents mental disengagement as those distracted by
task-irrelevant cues are unable to concentrate and absorb themselves
Task performance is clearly important for organizational success, into the focal task (Carver, 1996; Sarason et al., 1996). Concentration,
yet research indicates discretionary behaviors also play a key role in the focus, and absorption are all keys to workplace engagement (Rich et al.,
functioning of organizations. Citizenship behaviors represent a family 2010), meaning those distracted by offensive events are unlikely to
of behaviors that are both voluntary and helpful (Organ et al., 2006). As devote their full attention to the job. The justice literature parallels
many citizenship behaviors involve the helping of one’s coworkers (Lee these arguments, finding individuals disassociate (i.e., disengage)
& Allen, 2002; Williams & Anderson, 1991), the work and cognitive themselves from those that treat others poorly (Blader & Tyler, 2005;
dynamics found in those with a PTBO suggest possible implications for Haynie, Flynn, & Bauer, 2019). To the extent that PTBO leads in-
OCBs. When one is offended by something, natural processes cause that dividuals to focus on the inequitable characteristics of the workplace
individual to divert cognitive resources to the eliciting stimuli; this (cf. Schwartz, 2002, 2010), it likely prevents such individuals from fully
imposes additional processing demands on an employee while si- engaging in their work and also likely elicits feelings of dissatisfaction.
multaneously reducing the number of available resources that could be
Hypothesis 4. The proclivity to be offended negatively relates to job
allocated to helping a coworker. In fact, existing research indicates
cognitive interference reduces one’s sensitivity to peripheral cues
(Mueller, 1992; Smith, 1996). As individually-aimed citizenship beha- Hypothesis 5. The proclivity to be offended negatively relates to
vior requires an awareness of the needs of others, it seems those with a employee engagement.
proclivity to be offended may not pick up cues suggesting help is
needed and/or not have the available resources needed to help. Citi-
zenship behaviors may also (and frequently are) aimed at the broader 2.2. Underlying mechanism connecting PTBO and work-related behavior
organization. Sportsmanship, for instance, represents an employee’s and attitudes
tolerance or willingness to overlook problematic work characteristics
and maintain a focus on resolving task demands (Joireman, Daniels, Closer examination of cognitive interference theory and the ex-
George-Falvy, & Kamdar, 2006; Organ et al., 2006; Stoverink, planation put forth above suggesting a connection between PTBO and
Chiaburu, Li, & Zheng, 2015). Other key sporting behaviors include important workplace criteria provides insight into a potential under-
avoiding complaints about trivial matters and “making mountains out lying mechanism responsible for these relationships. That is, it was
of molehills” (Podsakoff, MacKenzie, Moorman, & Fetter, 1990). Recent suggested that PTBO serves as a cognitive distraction that re-routes
media reports (e.g., Bodley, 2017; Holley, 2017; Weinstein, 2017) limited resources from task-relevant cues to task-irrelevant cues as
suggest those who take offense to social issues and events are increas- employees attempt to make sense of offensive events. Yet, it is im-
ingly vocal—a pattern likely repeated within organizations. portant to remember the root of being offended by a wide array of
events and traditions lies, in part, in the belief that such events and
Hypothesis 2. The proclivity to be offended negatively relates to OCBs
traditions represent an unfair treatment of specific groups of people.
in the form of (a) OCBIs and (b) sportsmanship.
This proclivity also represents, in part, a belief that such inequity is
Not all discretionary behaviors help an organization or its members. ingrained into the fabric of organizations, and, consequently individual
CWBs, as referenced above, refer to a family of volitional acts that harm obligations to such institutions are lessened. Relevant to this notion is
the organization’s functioning. Given what cognitive interference re- existing research that suggests social justice (which includes sensitivity
search tells us about the processing of negative thoughts or events to offensive events) goes hand in hand with organizational justice (e.g.,
(Sarason et al., 1986; Vasey & Daleiden, 1996; Yee & Vaughan, 1996), it Cartabuke et al., 2019; Stone-Romero & Stone, 2005). Also relevant is
appears there is good reason to expect a relationship between PTBO and research indicating the more threatening or offensive events a person
CWBs. For example, perceived threats impair brain functioning and detects, the lower the threshold for activation becomes (Carver, 1996;
slow down cognitive processing (Goleman, 2004). Being offended is Vasey & Daleiden, 1996). Individuals who persistently monitor the
analogous to a threat of sorts, which means one can expect those high in environment for offensive events prime themselves to view ambiguous
PTBO to take more time processing and making sense of stimuli over- organizational actions and decisions as being offensive/unfair (see
looked or disregarded by many. Germane to this investigation is es- Segal, 1996). Such cognitions are typically studied in the organizational
tablished research indicating working at a slow pace is a form of CWB sciences under the umbrella of organizational justice theory, and
(Stewart et al., 2009). Yet, the interference that comes into play when whereas different forms of justice exist, overall perceptions of justice

J.B. Bernerth Journal of Business Research 116 (2020) 314–323

are more stable and account for more variance in key workplace out- experts, unidentifiable by two, and as a microaggression by the re-
comes than narrow facets (Ambrose & Arnaud, 2005; Ambrose & maining eight experts. The other four items were identified as PTBO by
Schminke, 2009; Hillebrandt & Barclay, 2013). Organizational justice, fewer than half of all respondents; each of these items were most fre-
in this study, is therefore defined as the overall perception of fairness quently categorized as “unidentifiable.” With 12 of 17 items classified
displayed by an organization (Ambrose & Schminke, 2009; Cropanzano as PTBO by more than 75% of experts, analysis continued by calcu-
& Ambrose, 2001). lating Fleiss’ (1971) Kappa to assess the overall consistency among
The theory and results described in the preceding paragraph along experts that these 12 items represent the PTBO. Kappa for this 12 item
with traditional news reporting (e.g., Bodley, 2017; Holley, 2017; measure was 0.85 (p < .05), thus indicating there was agreement
Weinstein, 2017) and limited academic research (e.g., Lilienfeld, 2017; among social scientists that these 12 items represent the construct of
Rothschild & Keefer, 2017; Schwartz, 2002) suggest a link between PTBO (i.e., these 12 items are content valid).
PTBO and organizational justice, yet existing research also suggests a
link between justice and those criteria previously described. Meta- 4. Study 2: Quantitative assessment of PTBO
analytic results illustrate this, documenting a strong relationship be-
tween perceptions of organizational (in)justice and an array of beha- 4.1. Method
viors and attitudes including the criteria explored in this study, as
employees who believe their organization has treated them unfairly feel 4.1.1. Participants and procedure
little reason to reciprocate with strong behavior or with a sense of Participation was solicited from employees with the help of upper-
gratefulness for the imbalanced exchange (Colquitt et al., 2013; level business students at seven geographically-dispersed universities
Colquitt, Conlon, Wesson, Porter, & Ng, 2001). These dynamics com- across the United States. As part of the recruitment process, students
bine to suggest organizational justice mediates the relationships be- were offered extra-credit in exchange for submitting the name and
tween PTBO and behavioral and altitudinal outcomes. email address of an employee working a minimum of 20 hours per week
or for distributing and collecting a paper survey to an employee
Hypothesis 6. The proclivity to be offended is negatively related to
working a minimum of 20 hours per week. 395 individuals completed
organizational justice.
the survey and correctly answered two data-quality check questions
Hypothesis 7. The relationships between the proclivity to be offended (i.e., answer strongly agree to this question). Participants’ reported
and (a) task performance, (b) OCBs, (c) CWBs, (d) satisfaction, and (e) average age was 25.9 years (SD = 9.1), average number of hours
engagement are mediated by organizational justice. worked per week was 30.3 (SD = 12.9), and average job tenure was
3.6 years (SD = 5.4). 54.6% indicated they were male; 70.0% indicated
they were White, 10.9% were Black, 9.0% were Hispanic, 6.5% were
3. Study 1: Measuring PTBO Asian, and 3.6% selected Other.

Although theory suggests individuals offended by various social is- 4.2. Measures
sues and events differ from those not easily offended in behavior and
attitudes, this is a new line of inquiry. Therefore, it is necessary to es- 4.2.1. Social desirability
tablish a measure that assesses this construct. Three sequential studies Because the goal of this study was to explore a new construct, it was
were used to develop such a measure and to assess whether or not it essential to evaluate any potential response bias in the newly developed
relates to work-related attitudes and behaviors. items. As such, participants completed a five-item social desirability
measure by Hayes, Hayashi, and Stewart (1989). Coefficient alpha for
3.1. Item development and initial assessment the present study was 0.65.

Using a hybrid deductive-inductive methodology, 17 items re- 4.2.2. Job satisfaction

presenting offensive events were developed. These events (i.e., items) Three items by Cammann, Fichman, Jenkins, and Klesh (1979) as-
came directly through news stories receiving substantial media atten- sessed participants’ job satisfaction. Coefficient alpha for the present
tion. The content validity of the newly developed items was assessed by study was 0.94.
conducting a survey of 18 social scientists who study work-related
phenomena. Each expert had a doctoral degree in a related field. Each 4.2.3. Employee engagement
subject matter expert was given a set of 45 survey items; this included Six engagement items by Rich et al. (2010) assessed participants’
the 17 items developed to assess the proclivity to be offended, eight work engagement. An example item includes “I exert my full effort on
moral outrage items by Pagano and Huo (2007), 11 microaggression my job.” Coefficient alpha for the present study was 0.93.
items by Torres-Harding, Siers, and Olson (2012), and nine political
correctness items by Strauts and Blanton (2015). Survey instructions 4.2.4. PTBO
asked participants to identify each item as one of four constructs (listed Study 2 began by assessing the relationship between the 12 PTBO
at the beginning of the survey were definitions of PTBO, moral outrage, items developed in Study 1 and social desirability. Importantly, not a
microaggressions, and political correctness) or indicate the item was single item correlated with the measure of social desirability, indicating
unidentifiable. Analysis began by first calculating the percentage of the appropriateness of continuing assessment of internal statistical
experts who classified each newly developed PTBO item correctly as properties. Following Hinkin (1998), the relationship between items
PTBO. No explicit cut-off exists for correct identification, but generally was assessed by studying the corrected item total correlation (i.e., the
agreed upon best practice recommendations suggest a minimum correct correlation between each individual item and the measure absent that
classification of 75% or better (Hinkin, 1998). Examination of the items item). The rationale for beginning this process with corrected item total
intended to assess PTBO revealed 5 items (Two men holding hands as correlations is that any item with a low correlation is indicative of an
they walk down the street; The term “Black lives matter,” Refusing to outside domain. This analysis revealed three items (“Using the pronoun
bake a cake for a gay wedding (for religious reasons); Believing minors ‘he’ or ‘she’ when referencing biologically male or female persons,”
brought to the US illegally should be granted citizenship; Believing “Caucasian individuals wearing dreadlocks as a hair style,” “Using the
black Americans should be paid reparations for prior ancestral slavery) term ‘black’ when referring to a person with African or Caribbean
fell below the 75% mark. The item “Refusing to bake a cake for a gay heritage”) did not reach generally accepted correlational standards
wedding (for religious reasons)” was identified as PTBO by nine (r = 0.40). These items were discarded at this point. An exploratory

J.B. Bernerth Journal of Business Research 116 (2020) 314–323

Table 1 6.3. Time 2 measures

Descriptive statistics and correlations for study 2 variables.
M SD 1 2 3 4 6.3.1. Job satisfaction
A single-item overall job satisfaction measure was used to assess
1. Proclivity to be offended (PTBO) 1.58 0.61 – employees’ overall job satisfaction (All in all, I am satisfied with my
2. Social desirability 4.87 0.94 0.09 –
job). A single-item job satisfaction was used in this study to lessen the
3. Job satisfaction 5.38 1.45 −0.22 0.17 –
4. Employee Engagement 5.78 1.10 −0.19 0.28 0.54 –
burden on subordinates and to help entice participation in the study
(i.e., as part of the recruitment message, participants were told surveys
Note. N = 395. were short and should take no more than 10–15 min to complete; thus,
Correlations of |0.17|or greater are significant at p < .05. the survey looked to minimize the number of questions required to
participate). Meta-analytic research on job satisfaction indicates single
factor analysis using principle axis factoring with Varimax rotation and item measures are appropriate in certain contexts and may obtain
an unspecified number of factors then assessed the factor structure of equally valid ratings as multiple-item measures (Dolbier, Webster,
the remaining 9 items. This analysis revealed a one-factor solution that McCalister, Mallon, & Steinhardt, 2005; Wanous, Reichers, & Hudy,
subsequently composed the final nine-item PTBO measure (α = 0.83). 1997).
See the Appendix for a list of the final nine-item measure.
6.3.2. Engagement
Rich et al.’s (2010) six item engagement scale was again used to
5. Results and discussion assess employees’ work engagement. Coefficient alpha for this study
was 0.92.
Table 1 displays descriptive statistics and zero-order correlations for
Study 2 variables; correlations reported in this table reveal a relation- 6.3.3. Organizational justice
ship between the new measure and both job satisfaction (r = −0.22, Ambrose and Schminke’s (2009) three-item measure assessed sub-
p < .05) and workplace engagement (r = −0.19, p < .05). In ad- ordinates’ overall justice perceptions. An example item includes
dition, in two simple regression analyses, PTBO negatively related with “Overall, I am treated fairly by my organization.” Coefficient alpha for
job satisfaction (R2 = 0.05, p < .05) and engagement (R2 = 0.04, the present study was 0.93.
p < .05). These results support the contention that PTBO can be
measured and that it correlates with work-related attitudes. With these 6.3.4. Task performance
findings in mind, formal hypothesis testing continued in Study 3. Supervisors assessed subordinates’ task performance with seven
items by Williams and Anderson (1991). An example item includes
6. Study 3: Assessing the outcomes of PTBO [This employee] “Adequately completes assigned duties.” Coefficient
alpha for the present study was 0.89.
6.1. Method
6.3.5. OCBI
6.1.1. Participants and procedure Supervisors assessed their subordinates’ citizenship behaviors aimed
Participation was solicited with the help of upper-level business at individuals within the organization with a seven-item measure by
students at two universities in the United States (one located in the Williams and Anderson (1991). An example item includes [This em-
West and the other in the South). Students received extra-credit for ployee] “Helps others who have been absent.” Coefficient alpha for the
submitting the name and email address of a subordinate (working a present study was 0.83.
minimum of 20 hours per week) and their immediate supervisor. As
part of the study, the subordinate was asked to complete two surveys 6.3.6. Sportsmanship
(separated by one month) while the direct supervisor was asked to Supervisors assessed subordinates’ sportsmanship with a five-item
complete a single survey assessing that subordinate’s workplace beha- measure by Podsakoff et al. (1990). An example item includes [This
viors. Of the roughly 350 employees who were sent an invitation to employee] “Consumes a lot of time complaining about trivial matters”
participate in the first survey, a total of 123 sets of Time 1 employee (reverse scored). Coefficient alpha for the present study was 0.92.
surveys, Time 2 employee surveys, and Time 2 supervisor surveys
matched, for a rough participation rate of around 35%. 6.3.7. Counterproductive work behaviors
The reported demographic statistics for the final set of subordinates Supervisors assessed subordinates’ counterproductive work beha-
indicated an average age of 35.1 years (SD = 14.3), average job tenure viors with a seven-item measure by Stewart et al. (2009). An example
of 6.8 years (SD = 8.1), and average number of work hours of 35.4 item includes [This employee] “Intentionally worked slower than they
(SD = 12.3). The reported race of subordinates included 79.3% White, could have worked.” Coefficient alpha for the present study was 0.82.
5.8% Black, 6.6% Hispanic, 5.8% Asian, 0.8% Native American, and
1.7% Other. Reported statistics for participating supervisors indicated 6.4. Confirmatory factor analyses
an average age of 44.9 years (SD = 12.0), average organizational te-
nure of 13.9 years (SD = 11.2), and average managerial span of control Prior to testing study hypotheses, two confirmatory factor analyses
of 19.0 employees (SD = 30.6). The reported race of supervisors in- (CFA; one on the data provided by employees and the other on the data
cluded 88.6% White, 4.4% Black, 2.6% Hispanic, 3.5% Asian, and 0.9% provided by supervisors) were run to ensure the appropriate structure
Other. of measured constructs. The first CFA, run on data provided by em-
ployees, indicated the hypothesized four-factor model, including a
single item measure of job satisfaction with reliability set to one minus
6.2. Time 1 measure 0.70 (i.e., a conservative estimate found in established research, see
Dolbier et al., 2005; Wanous et al., 1997), fit the data well: χ2
6.2.1. PTBO (147) = 251.14, p < .01; CFI = 0.92, SRMR = 0.06, RMSEA = 0.07.
In addition to demographic questions, subordinates completed the Because the overall sample size was small in comparison to the number
nine-item measure developed and refined in Studies 1 and 2. Coefficient of indicators (which could inflate goodness-of-fit statistics) for the data
alpha for the present study was 0.81. provided by supervisors, items were parceled together so that each

J.B. Bernerth Journal of Business Research 116 (2020) 314–323

Table 2
Means, standard deviations, and bivariate correlations of study 3 variables.
Variables M SD 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

1. Agea
35.06 14.3 –
2. Racea 1.21 0.41 −0.09 –
3. Proclivity to be offended (PTBO)a 1.50 0.55 −0.27 0.27 –
4. Task performanceb 6.42 0.69 0.04 −0.05 −0.30 –
5. OCBIb 6.08 0.70 0.14 0.01 −0.27 0.57 –
6. Sportsmanshipb 6.06 1.17 0.02 −0.20 −0.35 0.52 0.47 –
7. CWBb 1.54 0.61 −0.05 0.08 0.18 −0.46 −0.47 −0.60 –
8. Job satisfactionc 5.89 1.20 0.20 −0.02 −0.31 0.15 0.20 0.18 −0.06 –
9. Employee engagementc 6.07 0.79 0.30 −0.07 −0.13 0.19 0.24 0.23 −0.23 0.41 –
10. Organizational justicec 5.91 1.03 0.08 −0.11 −0.20 0.23 0.23 0.28 −0.18 0.69 0.23 –

Note. N = 123. Correlations of |0.18|or greater are significant at p < .05. Race coded 1 = white, 2 = non-white.
Data provided by employees at Time 1.
Supervisors’ ratings of employees at Time 2.
Data provided by employees at Time 2.

latent factor was explained by three indicators (see Hall, Snell, & Foust, relates to CWB (b = 0.20, p = < 0.05), fully support Hypotheses 1–3.
1999; Kishton & Widaman, 1994; Landis, Beal, & Tesluk, 2000; Little, Hypothesis 4 and 5 predicted negative relationships between PTBO and
Cunningham, Shahar, & Widaman, 2002). This model indicated the job satisfaction and employee engagement. The negative relationship
data provided by supervisors also fit the hypothesized four-factor model (b = −0.67, p < .05) found in Table 3 between PTBO and job sa-
adequately: χ2 (48) = 91.94, p < .01; CFI = 0.96, SRMR = 0.05, tisfaction indicates full support for Hypothesis 4, yet results were not as
RMSEA = 0.09. clear with employee engagement. Although a negative relationship was
found between PTBO and employee engagement in Study 2, results
reported in Table 3 indicate PTBO was unrelated to employee en-
7. Results
gagement (b = −0.19, p = ns) in Study 3. Mediation results described
next help shed light on this finding, yet the pattern of results across
Table 2 provides the means, standard deviations, and intercorrela-
both studies indicates only limited support for Hypothesis 5.
tions for all study variables.
Hypothesis 6 proposed a relationship between PTBO and organi-
zational justice while Hypotheses 7a–7e built on this proposed re-
7.1. Hypotheses testing lationship and suggested justice serves as an intervening mechanism
between PTBO and the work-related behavior and attitudes proposed in
The hypothesized direct and indirect (i.e., mediated) relationships Hypotheses 1–5. Results in Table 3 indicate that PTBO is in fact nega-
were tested using standard regression techniques in combination with a tively related to perceptions of organizational justice (b = −0.38,
bias-corrected and accelerated bootstrapping procedure with 5000 re- p < .05, adjusted R2 = 0.04), supporting Hypothesis 6. To assess
plications (see Preacher & Hayes, 2004; Hayes, 2013). Using the Hypothesis 7, which included six embedded hypothesized indirect ef-
bootstrapping procedure allows one to draw a large number of random fects, the bootstrapped indirect effects and confidence intervals asso-
samples from original data to develop a sampling distribution of in- ciated with each proposed relationship was assessed. Examination of
direct effects, and subsequently calculate and examine confidence in- Table 4 indicates organizational justice served as an intervening me-
tervals to ensure they do not contain zero (i.e., check for mediation). All chanism for five of the six outcome variables. Specific results indicate
mediation analyses used PROCESS version 2.16.3 for SPSS (Hayes, organizational justice mediated the relationship between PTBO and
2013). The first set of hypotheses, Hypotheses 1 and 2, predicted ne- task performance (H7a; ab = −0.05, CI.95 = −0.145, −0.001), OCBI
gative relationships between PTBO and task performance, OCBI, and (H7b; ab = −0.05, CI.95 = −0.135, −0.003), sportsmanship (H7b;
sportsmanship, and Hypothesis 3 predicted a positive relationship be- ab = −0.10, CI.95 = −0.236, −0.011), job satisfaction (H7d;
tween PTBO and CWB. ab = −0.29, CI.95 = −0.571, −0.019), and employee engagement
Results reported in Table 3, which indicate PTBO negatively relates (H7e; ab = −0.06, CI.95 = −0.187, −0.005). The 95% confidence
to task performance (b = −0.38, p < .05), OCBI (b = −0.34, interval for the indirect effect of justice on the relationship between
p < .05), and sportsmanship (b = −0.74, p < .05), and positively PTBO and CWBs included zero, indicating Hypothesis 7c was not sup-
ported. The overall pattern of results, however, provides general sup-
Table 3 port for Hypothesis 7 and more context for the insignificant direct re-
Summary of estimated direct effects found in study 3. lationship found between PTBO and employee engagement as it
PTBO → Criterion R2 Adjusted R2 b SE t appears PTBO’s influence on engagement is partially a result of the
influence on unfair organizational perceptions formed by those high in
Task performance 0.09 0.09 −0.38 0.11 −3.51* PTBO.
OCBI 0.07 0.06 −0.34 0.11 −3.05*
Sportsmanship 0.12 0.11 −0.74 0.18 −4.06*
CWB 0.03 0.03 0.20 0.10 2.02* 8. Discussion
Job satisfaction 0.10 0.09 −0.67 0.19 −3.55*
Employee engagement 0.02 0.01 −0.19 0.13 −1.47
The popular press is replete with news stories about individuals
PTBO → Mediator upset by various political and social issues, events and traditions (e.g.,
Organizational justice 0.04 0.03 −0.38 0.17 −2.26*
Bodley, 2017; Clague, 2016; Holley, 2017; Payne, 2016; Weinstein,
Note. N = 123. b is the unstandardized regression coefficient. Employees 2017), yet there is no systematic research exploring what these reac-
provided ratings of PTBO at Time 1 and job satisfaction, engagement, and or- tions represent conceptually or empirically. This is problematic for
ganizational justice at Time 2. Supervisors assessed employees’ task perfor- managers and organizations as they lack guidance on what these re-
mance, OCBIs, sportsmanship, and CWBs at Time 2. actions might tell us about applicants and/or employees and how they,
* p < .05. the organization, should view and react to such happenings. To address

J.B. Bernerth Journal of Business Research 116 (2020) 314–323

Table 4
Summary of Estimated Indirect Effects Found in Study 3.
95% Confidence interval

Direct path from predictor and mediators to criterion b SE t Indirect path (H7) ab SE Lower Upper

H1: PTBO → task performance −0.34 0.11 −3.07* PTBO → organizational justice → task performance −0.05 0.03 −0.145 −0.001
Justice → task performance 0.12 0.06 2.03*
R2 = 0.12, Adjusted R2 = 0.11, F = 2 (120) = 8.38, p < .05

b SE t ab SE Lower Upper

H2a: PTBO → OCBI −0.30 0.11 −2.61* PTBO → organizational justice → OCBI −0.05 0.03 −0.135 −0.003
Justice → OCBI 0.12 0.06 2.05*
2 2
R = 0.10, Adjusted R = 0.09, F = 2 (120) = 6.85, p < .05

b SE t ab SE Lower Upper

H2b: PTBO → sportsmanship −0.64 0.18 −3.54* PTBO → organizational justice → sportsmanship −0.10 0.06 −0.236 −0.011
Justice → sportsmanship 0.25 0.10 2.63*
2 2
R = 0.17, Adjusted R = 0.16, F = 2 (120) = 12.08, p < .05

b SE t ab SE Lower Upper

H3: PTBO → CWB 0.17 0.10 1.66 PTBO → organizational justice → CWB 0.03 0.03 −0.004 0.111
Justice → CWB −0.09 0.05 −1.66
R2 = 0.06, Adjusted R2 = 0.04, F = 2 (120) = 3.46, p < .05

b SE t ab SE Lower Upper

H4: PTBO → job satisfaction −0.39 0.14 −2.68* PTBO → organizational justice → job satisfaction −0.29 0.14 −0.571 −0.019
Justice → job satisfaction 0.75 0.08 9.85*
R2 = 0.50, Adjusted R2 = 0.49, F = 2 (120) = 59.88, p < .05

b SE t ab SE Lower Upper
H5: PTBO → engagement −0.13 0.13 −1.00 PTBO → organizational justice → employee −0.06 0.04 −0.187 −0.005
Justice → engagement 0.16 0.07 2.34*
R2 = 0.06, Adjusted R2 = 0.04, F = 2 (120) = 3.85, p < .05

Note. N = 123. b is the unstandardized regression coefficient. ab represents the indirect effect. Bootstrap sample size = 5000.
* p < .05.

this issue, this study conceptualized these reactions as a proclivity to respond to increases in the PTBO.
react in a specific way. The relationship between this proclivity and Despite numerous and sensationalized headlines in the popular
important work-related behavior and attitudes was then empirically press, very few stories offer an explanation for why or how modern
explored, finding this proclivity is negatively related to task perfor- political and social activity relates to behavioral and attitudinal out-
mance, citizenship behavior, job satisfaction, and employee engage- comes in the workplace. This study put forth a unique application of
ment, and positively related to counterproductive work behaviors. This cognitive interference theory (Sarason, 1984), and in doing so hy-
study also explored a potential explanatory mechanism underlying pothesized a key mediating mechanism that serves as an explanation for
these relationships, finding that those prone to be offended also view why PTBO correlates with important workplace outcomes. PTBO not
their organizations as less fair. Perceptions of fairness subsequently only correlated with each of these factors, but mediation effects also
correlated with five key outcome variables, suggesting one reason that indicated perceptions of organizational (in)justice mediate the re-
PTBO correlates with important work-related outcomes is a distraction lationship between PTBO and five of six outcomes. Using cognitive
or a focus on the perceived injustice of organizational actions. interference theory in conjunction with organizational justice theory
The most fundamental implication of this research is the finding represents a novel and notable contribution as scholars have previously
that the current trend of taking offense to an array of events and tra- suggested injustice may serve as an important distraction, but this re-
ditions represents an underlying phenomenon and not isolated reac- search focused exclusively on customer mistreatment (Rafaeli et al.,
tions. Moreover, this state correlates with some of the most important 2012) and concerns over employment testing (McCarthy et al., 2009).
work-related outcomes (see Kataria et al., 2012; Koys, 2001; Ostroff, This study instead focused on the distraction caused by a state-like
1992), and in ways one might not expect or predict. For example, one tendency, finding the proclivity to be offended to customarily in-
might assume those who display PTBO are the most helpful in the or- nocuous societal events and traditions spills over to employees’ per-
ganization as their prescriptive morality dictates helping and providing ceptions of how the organization treats them. These results have clear
for others (cf. Arnot, 2009; Janoff-Bulman & Carnes, 2014; Schwartz, theoretical implications for future research as cognitive interference
2002, 2010; Thomas & McGarty, 2009), but study results indicate a theory needs to expand the definition of what constitutes an interfering
negative relationship between PTBO and two different forms of citi- event while justice scholars could better integrate ideas of social justice
zenship behavior. Moreover, PTBO negatively correlated with task into models of organizational justice.
performance and positively correlated with counterproductive work
behaviors, suggesting not only that these individuals engage in fewer
citizenship behaviors but also engage in behaviors managers and or- 8.1. Implications for practice
ganizations want their employees to avoid. As this is the first systematic
exploration of PTBO and work-related outcomes, this study offers em- Building on the points raised above, it is also important to note the
pirical evidence that managers and organizations can utilize to help practical implications of this research. For one, managers and organi-
navigate increasingly politically-charged contexts as they decide how to zations are largely unguided by empirical research and thus left to
question how they should treat applicants and/or employees who might

J.B. Bernerth Journal of Business Research 116 (2020) 314–323

take offense to an array of events and traditions. While only an initial items from traditional news reporting, but many of the items included
exploration, this research suggests those easily offended may focus in the final measure would not have been included had the study began
closely on the fairness of the organization’s actions and decisions. This five years ago when many of these events/traditions were still viewed
subsequently harms their attitudes and performance. Existing research as harmless to the vast majority of individuals. Having employees rate
suggests managers trained in principles of fairness positively impact the same events and traditions over the course of several years could
their employees’ perceptions (Skarlicki & Latham, 1997) and may, help determine the degree to which PTBO is truly stable or malleable.
therefore, be able to lessen the deleterious effects of PTBO on employee
effectiveness. Paying close attention to personal interactions and the 9. Conclusion
manner in which organizational policies and decisions are enacted
provides a good starting point, but both anecdotal and objective data The reported investigation provides an initial attempt to fill a void
suggests giving in to those individuals expressing the most outrage is in social science knowledge by developing a measure that asks how
not an advisable strategy (see Hartocollis, 2017). This suggests orga- individuals view current events and subsequently assessing the re-
nizations, managers, and organizational scholars alike take strides to lationship between this measure, a key workplace distraction (i.e., or-
more systematically explore current societal topics like PTBO. ganizational (in)justice), and important work-related behavior and at-
titudes. Results linking the proclivity to be offended with perceived (in)
8.2. Limitations and future research justice, poor task performance, citizenship behavior, counterproductive
work behavior, job dissatisfaction, and employee engagement are par-
This study is the first to explore the relationship between PTBO and ticularly important to organizations that do not have a good under-
work-related behavior and attitudes, yet readers should be mindful of standing of how they should view applicants and employees who ex-
certain limitations of the reported research. For example, the items (i.e., press indignation at an array of events and traditions. Ultimately,
events) that compose the PTBO measure developed and used in this individuals, organizations, and society need to better understand what
research are not exhaustive and may be fluid in nature. What re- is driving current trends like PTBO, and as such, it is hoped that this
spondents feel is offensive today (in the current political climate) may study provides a foundation for debate and future explorations.
change over time, meaning the items contained in the reported measure
will likely need to be updated periodically. One possible topic to in- Appendix A
clude in additional items or updates is work-related offensive events.
This study used cognitive interference and organizational justice theory 9-item proclivity to be offended measure (PTBO)
to connect PTBO with significant work-related outcomes. As justice
theory suggests specific actions help promote fairness perceptions, it Instructions given to participants: The statements in this section de-
would be interesting to see if a lack of such actions or if engagement in scribe a number of current events/topics in the news. We would like to
other work-related behaviors generate similar reactions to those found get your opinion on the extent to which these events/topics are offen-
in this study and/or statistically map with non-work related offensive sive to YOU personally (i.e., not how offensive other people think they
events. Relatedly, the initial pool of items developed for this study are). It is important that you give your honest opinion of these events/
purposefully included events on all sides of the political aisle, but as topics. Remember, your responses are completely anonymous.
these items were subjected to various validity checks, some of the de- With this in mind, please circle your answer using the following
sired balance was lost. As such, future updates could consider the rating scale:
possibility of a higher order construct or separate constructs that tap
into distinctive conservative/progressive offensive events, which would 1 = Not at all offensive
allow for potentially important comparisons. 2 = Indifferent or neutral
Another consideration is the definition of PTBO as a state-like ten- 3 = Somewhat offensive
dency that has emerged in recent years. This use of the term “state-like” 4 = Offensive
is intended to be less fluctuating than the transient or momentary 5 = Extremely offensive
feelings studied by emotions scholars but considerably less enduring
than the stable individual differences explored by personality scholars. The term Washington “Redskins”
To this point, cognitive interference research finds some individuals are Wearing a shirt that has an American flag on Cinco de Mayo
predisposed towards the experience of intrusive thoughts while others Telling someone to “man up”
are victims of situational characteristics (i.e., there is both trait and Dressing up as an American Indian for Halloween
state interference; Mikulincer, 1989; Pierce et al., 1998; Sarason et al., Saying “God bless you” after someone sneezes
1986). On the disposition side, enduring characteristics like anxiety, The term “Blue lives matter”
personal adjustment (or lack thereof), and negative affect show the The playing of the USA National Anthem
strongest link with reoccurring cognitive interference (Dombeck, Believing that individuals who do not have legal status to be in a
Siegle, & Ingram, 1996; Pierce et al., 1998; Yee & Vaughan, 1996). As country should be deported
Big Five personality scholars typically study these traits as part of Using the term Islamic terrorist
neuroticism, this opens up one avenue of future research in that it is
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