Study co-author Karl Aquino and colleagues at the University of Minnesota, Clemson University in South Carolina and Georgia State University said envious employees were more likely to undermine peers if they feel disconnected from others.
"We often hear that people who feel envious of their colleagues try to bring them down by spreading negative rumors, withholding useful information, or secretly sabotaging their work," Aquino said in a statement. "The match is not struck unless employees experience what psychologists call 'moral disengagement' -- a way of thinking that allows people to rationalize or justify harming others."
The researchers say moral disengagement is most likely to occur when an envious co-worker feels disconnected from others in the workplace.
The research team conducted two field studies, one involving 160 employees from a U.S. hospital to test whether a person's lack of identification with colleagues increases their likelihood to act on envy. Participants were asked to rate their reactions -- positive or negative -- to a series of statements regarding envy, affinity with colleagues and comfort with subversive acts.
After eight months, the respondents were surveyed again, this time about their actual activities.
The study, published in the Academy of Management Journal, found employees were significantly more likely to report committing sabotage when experiencing weak relationships with co-workers. Conversely, envious participants reported low sabotage incident rates when they felt they were more strongly connected to their workmates.