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Being Helpful at Work Pays...Quite Literally!

Why nice guys and girls get a head start in their careers

Does it pay to be nice to your colleagues at work?

Suppose you are part of a job search committee and there are two remaining candidates, Paul and Mary. At this time the committee starts collecting letters of recommendation. From the reference letters it seems that both of the candidates are highly competent, hard working individuals. Both would be an asset to your organization. Yet at the end of the letter, one referee comments about Paul that he likes to work individually, and whenever colleagues experience problems he tends to get on with his own job and refers them to someone else. In contrast, Mary is being described as a generally helpful person, always willing to assist colleagues when they are experiencing work-related problems This little addition can make a world of difference to how you are being evaluated as a job candidate, and whether you get the job or not. It can even determine your starting salary.

Together with VU University students Nynke Engelhard and Arianne Van der Wal we performed this experiment with a sample of almost 200 employees and employers of different organizations in the Netherlands, many of whom had plenty experience in job search committees. They participated in a mock search for an administrative employee and got information to read about different job candidates, male and female. They also saw the letters of recommendation associated with these candidates. They then had to make a decision who to hire and how much starting salary to give each person. The results were almost beyond belief. The kind, cooperative applicant was almost twice as likely to be hired and his/her starting salary lay around $130 per month higher than that of the other equally competent but more individualistic candidate.

This surprised us in three ways. First we thought that maybe helpful workers would be seen as a liability because they would interfere with the work activities of others instead of getting their own job done. This turned out to be untrue. Second, we suspected that employers might want to employ a prosocial person, but they would not want to pay them more. Perhaps, so we thought, they would even exploit their kind nature, and pay them less. Again, no evidence for this selective exploitation hypothesis. Finally, we thought that there may be a halo effect going on so that cooperative workers would not only get a better reputation but they would also be seen as (physically) more attractive person. However we did not find any evidence for this.

The conclusion of our little experiment is that having a good reputation as a cooperative worker pays off in the long run. This is no surprise to any student of human nature. One of the reasons that humans are helpful, even to complete strangers, is because humans evolved in large social communities in which their reputation was continuously being monitored and talked about. Within those communities, smaller groups would be operating to perform multitude of collective tasks such as hunting, collecting wood, and building camp sites, and they needed to recruit members for their activities. But who would they recruit? Well, it is much better to select competent individuals who are known to be team players than to select equally able individuals who are selfish and uncooperative. As long as people’s reputations are continuously being monitored and provide a reliable indication of how someone really is such reputation systems should work. This is called competitive altruism, the idea that people compete with each other for a good reputation, and those with the best, prosocial reputations survive and thrive.

The workplace is an environment that induces competitive altruism as people’s reputations are constantly being monitored. If you are the kind of person helpful to others it will become shared knowledge soon enough.

The final thing you need is for someone to actually put this in a letter of recommendation for you. This way you will get the job and the salary that you deserve!

Engelhard, N., Wal, A.& Van Vugt, M. (2013). Competitive altruism in the workplace. Behavior and Organisation [Gedrag en Organisatie], 26, 292-309.

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