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Workplace Dynamics

When Generosity Leads to Exploitation at Work

Why is so much often asked of the people who already give the most?

Key points

  • Generous employees are integral to an organization's success, but they are not always treated well.
  • New research suggests generous employees are more likely than others to be targeted with unfair requests.
  • Managers who consider the ethical implications of unfair requests may be less likely to make them.
energepic / Pexels
Source: energepic / Pexels

People who are willing to take on extra assignments, share resources, and generally go above and beyond the call of duty are incredibly valuable to their organizations. Large studies have found that organizations with more of these types of employees tend to be more successful and that a culture of generosity can improve job satisfaction and productivity for all.

Given the benefits of retaining generous employees, it would seem wise to treat them with respect and appreciation. But according to new research, this is not always what happens. Instead, generosity may be exploited—even if unintentionally—where generous employees are more likely than their colleagues to be pressured or coerced into taking on a disproportionate burden of the workload.

Specifically, the research found that managers were more likely to ask subordinates with a reputation for generosity—compared to those without this reputation—to do each of the following activities for no additional compensation: work on vacation, do a difficult task unrelated to their job duties, work several extra hours in the evening outside of their workday, come to work at least an hour early, and forego benefits.

What was their rationale for this differential treatment? One explanation, the researchers found, was that managers believed generous subordinates would be more likely to volunteer for the extra work of their own volition.

But it’s difficult to know what someone would have chosen in a situation where they aren’t given much of a choice. As the researchers note, subordinates are in a vulnerable position where they depend on their superiors for things like job security, references, and health benefits. It’s not always realistic to just say “no” to a direct request without negative repercussions.

Managers who make unfair requests of generous subordinates may be experiencing what psychologists call ethical blindness, where they are temporarily unable to recognize the ethical elements of their decisions. They may be focused on their own needs and goals at the moment (e.g., “this task needs to happen and someone has to do it”) while failing to consider the difficult position their subordinate is put in. They may also be stretched in their own right.

Left unchecked, this practice can harm both employees and the organizations they work for. Overworked employees are more likely to experience burnout, and organizations risk losing employees if they don’t treat them well. Even for the most devoted employee, the well of generosity will eventually run dry if it’s overused.

The researchers proposed several ways to address this problem, including reminding managers of the ethical implications of their requests (which in their studies seemed to help make the requests less likely, at least in hypothetical scenarios), and increased monitoring to make sure ethical guidelines are followed.

In addition to considering ethical issues, it may also be helpful for managers to consider that exploitative practices are likely to have long-term costs for the very outcomes they are trying to improve.

When people care about their work and their organization’s mission, they are often intrinsically motivated to go the extra mile. But if workplaces want to create a true culture of generosity, they need to ensure that generosity is freely chosen, not demanded and that employees who are able and willing to give extra time and resources are rewarded for their efforts, not punished with additional demands.

If you’re an employee who wants to be generous but not exploited, remember that there is nothing selfish about expecting appropriate boundaries to be respected. This doesn’t take away from your generosity but rather allows it to be sustainable.


Stanley, M. L., Neck, C. P., & Neck, C. B. (2023). The dark side of generosity: Employees with a reputation for giving are selectively targeted for exploitation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 108, 104503.

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