Tales and Tips on Workplace Revenge

Admit it. There's someone at work you'd like to hog-tie, like Dolly Parton and company did to their "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" of a boss in the movie "Nine to Five."

You wouldn't be alone in your workplace revenge fantasy. Any HR professional worth his or her salt can regale you with tales of pink-slipped employees stealing sales leads, crashing computer networks and siccing the Department of Health on a company while headed out the door.

For some disgruntled workers, though, that's just kid stuff.

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Earlier this month, a Boeing assembly-line worker outside Philadelphia cut 70 electrical wires on a military helicopter because he was upset about a job transfer. In case you were wondering, that's some pretty pricey vandalism.

Not to be outdone, a New York taxi driver who had been fired slit the throat of a white bunny he'd bought in a pet store and left it at the entrance of his former employer's place of business. Like Mr. Wire Cutters, he was arrested.

But how common are scorned employees who take workplace revenge to the extreme, slashing tires, giving the boss a shiner, and in the most horrific cases, showing up at their former place of employment with a shotgun?

Not very.

Show Me the Petty

"Most workplace violence has nothing to do with revenge," says Tom Tripp, Washington State University management professor and co-author with Georgetown University management professor Robert Bies of "Getting Even: The Truth About Workplace Revenge," due out in February 2009.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that only 7 percent of workplace homicides are committed by employees or ex-employees.

Far more common are the everyday, on-the-job acts of revenge -- what Tripp calls "the little nasty stuff." You know, insulting a co-worker, badmouthing a boss, giving a colleague the silent treatment, quitting without notice and -- my personal favorite -- criticizing someone via e-mail and cc'ing the person's manager.

"In most people's careers, these things have happened repeatedly," Tripp says. "It isn't as bad as workplace violence, but it can be bad for workplace productivity."

Revenge Seekers Are 'Normal, Sane Employees'

Exactly who are these fearless career avengers?

"Most workplace revenge is committed by normal, sane employees," says Tripp, who with Bies interviewed nearly 500 workers about 800 incidents of on-the-job retaliation. "They feel that they have been unfairly treated, so they're seeking to even the score."

In other words, they want justice, and they want it now. And they doubt that telling HR or their shop steward that their colleague stole their project, embarrassed them in a client meeting or otherwise undermined them will get anywhere. So they take the law of the workplace into their own hands.

Shunning a former lunch buddy or sending a co-worker a one-off passive-aggressive e-mail isn't likely to violate any company policies. But workers who value their jobs did tell Tripp and Bies they thought twice before retaliating against a manager, for fear of retribution.

As well they should, Tripp says. "One of the things bosses can do is give lousy assignments," and they can also "reprimand people, give people lousy shifts, dock pay and fire them," he says.

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