Saturday, August 13, 2022

Stigmatize to Rehabilitate? Organizational Marking of Transgressors as Social Control

Organizations have rules, employees who break rules, and rules on how to punish employees who break rules. Often these are thought of in simplified terms as ways of making transgression costly so that employees will not transgress. The simplification is silly – we know that transgression occurs anyway, so it is necessary to think more broadly about punishment rules. If the organization keeps the transgressor in employment, can it also manage a rehabilitation that ensures good work relations and avoids repeated rule-breaking? How can this be done?

Surprisingly, these questions have not seen much investigation despite their obvious importance. But thanks to Erin Frey, Ethan Bernstein, and Nick Rekenthaler we now have research on this topic based on a military school (let’s call it the Academy) that has an honor code, cadets who break it, and a particular rule on how to punish those it retains because the violation is not too severe. The rule is interesting because it requires violators to wear a pin on their lapel indicating a rank one level lower than the lowest regular rank in the Academy for a period of many months. Given the military obsession with rank and alertness to symbols of rank, this marks them to everyone as having transgressed the honor code. In short, they are “screw-ups,” and everyone can see it. 

To an observer with some interest in history, this resembles a variety of medieval punishment methods meant to stigmatize violators and isolate them from their village, town, or city neighborhood. Stigmatization, whether intended or not, is generally quite effective in isolating individuals, attracting disdain, and preventing cooperation with others. So, can such a mark help rehabilitation?

There is a key difference between a village and an organization, and maybe especially an educational organization. Organizations have clearly defined boundaries, so it is obvious to all that the marked transgressor is still a member. Organizations have interdependent tasks, so the marked transgressor needs to communicate with others, and vice versa. This creates opportunities for explaining the transgression, expressing regret, and showing recovery.

Arguably the marking of a transgressor also creates a need to explain, express regret, and show recovery. The marked transgressor will be a stigmatized member rather than a regular one, so there is a social pressure to show signs of rehabilitation. In the Academy, there was an expectation that the marked transgressors should advocate and display even higher standards of behavior than others, and indeed they did so.

How general is this effect? Here we need to speculate a bit, but some boundaries seem obvious. What about marking transgressors in customer-facing work? I would be uncomfortable seeing a barista with a mark indicating some sort of transgression. Even more so an airline pilot. Indeed, the uniforms used in many kinds of customer-facing work (again, all pilots and many baristas) are supposed to create generalized trust that does not single out anyone as being better or worse than others.

Still, even if the effect of marking violators as a path to rehabilitation is not fully general, it is very interesting that it is possible. Organizations are hierarchies that can punish and try to rehabilitate through rules and hierarchical approaches, but they are also social systems. The marking of violators makes use of this and has an effect that is surprisingly beneficial.

Frey, Erin, Ethan Bernstein, and Nick Rekenthaler. 2022. Scarlet Letters: Rehabilitation Trough Transgression Transparency and Personal Narrative Control. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.