Tales and Tips on Workplace Revenge

Tempted to hog-tie your boss? There are better ways to settle the score.


May 29, 2008— -- 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.

Looking for career advice? Click here to send Michelle your questions and they might end up as a topic for her next column.

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.

"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."

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.

All of us are prone to thoughts of retribution on occasion. (We're people, not puppies, after all.) So in the interest of avenging oneself in the safest possible manner, allow me to make several suggestions:

Kill them with kindness: Rather than take your best potshot, turn on the saccharine and keep your adversaries guessing. "It's more important to just be able to cope with someone," says Julie Jansen, author of "You Want Me to Work With Who? Eleven Keys to a Stress-Free, Satisfying, and Successful Work Life."

"If someone knows they did sometime terrible to you, like stole your idea and presented it as their own, they're always going to be waiting for the other shoe to drop if you're ultra nice to them," she says.

Outshine the competition: Color me petty, but even after talking with Tripp, I remain a fan of the "working harder to show up the competition" tactic, especially if a co-worker has gone out of his way to cut you down in front of clients or management.

If you're predisposed to hard work anyway, and you're not doing anything to countersabotage the initial offender, what's the harm in showing your nemesis who's really boss?

Move on: If the worst happens and you lose your job, don't retaliate. Take a pen from the supply room on your way out if you must, but don't conveniently "forget" to return the $2,500 laptop and don't e-mail a computer virus to the entire company.

"If you think it's not going to come back to haunt you, you're wrong," says Jackie Valent, who is director of human resources in the Milwaukee office of accounting giant Deloitte and has worked in HR for 20 years. "Things get around, especially if you work in a small industry or a small city. You need to weigh the implication on your long-term career."

A better strategy is to "take a hard, introspective look at yourself and see if there's something you can improve," says Jansen, especially if getting the boot is an ongoing occurrence in your work life. If you can't get feedback from your employer (as will frequently be the case), ask a handful of trusted friends and colleagues to weigh in.

After all, the best revenge is moving on to bigger and better, not festering in some jail cell because you took a blow torch to the CEO's Mercedes.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books -- "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com