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The Dark Side of Passion: How to Protect Workers from Exploitation

Datum:11 januari 2024
Auteur:Onne Janssen
The Dark Side of Passion: How to Protect Workers from Exploitation
The Dark Side of Passion: How to Protect Workers from Exploitation

Some workers stand out for their passion, generosity, loyalty, or heroism. Passion is the enthusiasm and excitement for one’s work, often driven by intrinsic motivation and personal interest. Passionate workers love and excel at their work, finding meaning and joy in their work. They are more engaged, productive, and creative than their less passionate counterparts.

These traits are highly valued by management, as they can enhance motivation, performance, and satisfaction, and make workers more committed to their organization and its goals. However, these traits can also make workers vulnerable to exploitation, by their managers or colleagues, and can result in negative outcomes, such as higher risk of burnout.

Exploitation occurs when someone takes advantage of another person’s virtues, without rewarding or respecting them. For example, managers may demand more from passionate workers than non-passionate workers, because they assume that passionate workers are enthusiastic and devoted, and would work harder and longer for their work or cause.

Recent studies have shown that workers who display these positive traits are more likely to face unfair and excessive demands, such as working long hours, taking on extra tasks, or accepting lower pay, than workers who do not. Why? Because these traits create a positive image of the worker, which can lead to exploitation based on two psychological mechanisms:

·       Assumptions of voluntariness: People expect that passionate workers would voluntarily work extra or do demeaning tasks if given the opportunity, and thus blame them for their own exploitation. They think that passionate workers are so devoted to their work that they would willingly sacrifice their own interests or well-being for the sake of their work.

·       Beliefs of compensatory rewards: People believe that passionate workers get intrinsic rewards from their work, such as enjoyment and meaning, and thus consider their exploitation as less unfair. They think that passionate workers are so happy and fulfilled by their work that they do not require any external rewards or recognition for their work.

These assumptions then justify the exploitation and reduce the moral outrage or empathy that would otherwise be triggered by the poor treatment of the workers.

Researchers found consistent evidence that people tend to justify poor worker treatment more when it targets a passionate worker than a non-passionate worker. They also found support for the two mechanisms that explain this effect: assumptions of voluntariness and beliefs of compensatory rewards.

Other studies have shown that heroism, generosity, and loyalty can also expose workers to exploitation, for the same reason as passion: they create a positive stereotype of the worker, which makes people think that the worker would volunteer for their own exploitation, out of their dedication to their organization or cause. Heroism is the courage and willingness to take risks and face challenges for the sake of one’s organization or cause, often at the expense of one’s own safety or well-being. Generosity is the willingness to give more than what is expected or required, such as time, money, or effort, to help others or a cause. Loyalty is the commitment to one’s organization or group, even when they face challenges or conflicts.

These studies challenge the conventional wisdom that these traits are always good for workers and their organization. They show that these traits may not always benefit workers, especially if they are used by their managers or colleagues to exploit them. They also warn managers and policymakers to be careful of the potential dark side of these traits, and to avoid using workers’ virtues for their own advantage. Besides the ethical issue of exploitation, work overload also raises the risks of burnout and absenteeism.

How can this be prevented in the workplace? How can workers’ positive traits be respected and rewarded, not exploited and abused? Here are some tips:

·       Appreciate and value workers’ positive traits. Do not take their dedication and generosity for granted. Recognize and reward their efforts and achievements.

·       Respect and protect workers’ autonomy and agency. Do not assume that virtuous workers are always willing and able to do more than what is required. Do not pressure them to do things that they are not comfortable with or interested in.

·       Be vigilant and proactive about the possibility of exploitation. Look out for signs of it, stop it right away, and fix it if it happens.

·       Educate and empower workers about the dangers of exploitation. Do not let them fall into the trap of virtue and exploitation, where they agree to be exploited because they think it will make them more virtuous. Urge them to speak up and say no when they face unreasonable or excessive requests.

By following these tips, managers can ensure that workers’ positive traits are used for good, not evil, and that workers are treated with dignity and fairness. This way, a healthy and productive workplace can be created, where workers can thrive and flourish. 


Kim, J. Y., Campbell, T. H., Shepherd, S., & Kay, A. C. (2020). Understanding contemporary forms of exploitation: Attributions of passion serve to legitimize the poor treatment of workers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 118(1), 121–148.

Livne-Ofer, E., Coyle-Shapiro, J. A-M., & Pearce, J. L. (2019). Eyes wide open: Perceived exploitation and its consequences. Academy of Management Journal, 62(6), 1989–2018.

Stanley, M. L., & Kay, A. C. (2023). The Consequences of heroization for exploitation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

Stanley, M. L., Neck, C. B., & Neck, C. P. (2023). Loyal workers are selectively and ironically targeted for exploitation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 106, 104442.

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, 1045033.