July 7, 2011 -- The new farcical comedy "Horrible Bosses" highlights a sad reality of today's work force: A heck of a lot of bosses couldn't manage their way out of a paper bag.
In the movie, which stars Jennifer Aniston, three seemingly level-headed professionals plot to end their workplace woes by rubbing out their bosses. In real life, career experts tell oppressed, fed-up workers to polish their resumes and look to new horizons. "Don't seek vengeance against a bad boss," experts say. "Living well is the best revenge."
To those berated daily by an office tyrant, taking the high road probably sounds like a bunch of poppycock.
This isn't a small segment of the work force we're talking about. Bad office behavior is "extremely prevalent and growing," said Christine Porath, assistant professor of management at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.
"In 1998, 20 percent of people surveyed said that they had experienced this behavior at least once a week. By 2005, it was 48 percent," said Porath, co-author of "The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It." What's more, she said, 10 percent of workers witness poor treatment of their colleagues every day.
That's not to say all downtrodden employees take it lying down. In surveying 9,000 workers from a variety of U.S. industries, Porath and fellow researcher Christine Pearson, professor of management at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, found that nine out of 10 workers will retaliate against an office antagonist, perhaps by failing to cover their boss's back, perhaps by neglecting to mention a valuable piece of information, perhaps by badmouthing their boss to higher-ups.
But let's not concern ourselves right now with disgruntled underlings who "accidentally" misplace the PowerPoint file just moments before an abusive boss's big presentation. Instead, let's look at the battered employees who manage to thrive professionally despite a bad manager, and then later bask in the glory of rubbing their boss's face in it.
Succeeding -- and Then Feeling All Warm and Smug Inside
When Barry, a sales professional, realized that his company had accidentally overpaid him several thousand dollars over the course of a year, his less-than-benevolent boss was less than understanding that it had taken Barry so many months to notice.
"Even though I was one of his top people, he decided the best course of action was to threaten me, throwing his weight around and issuing an ultimatum," Barry wrote in an e-mail interview. "Either I pay the money back, or he'd let me go. Since I considered myself underpaid, I simply resigned. Shocked and amazed, he immediately cut the amount of money I supposedly owed in half. But having experienced a massive sense of relief the moment I quit, I wasn't about to go back."
Fast-forward several years. Since leaving his job, Barry had become a sought-after business consultant and public speaker. It was then that he had the delectable pleasure of flaunting his newfound success in front of his ex-boss.
"That very same manager got to sit in the audience and listen as I delivered the opening keynote at his new employer's annual conference, for a daily fee that was considerably in excess of what I'd been 'overpaid' in a month when working for him," Barry wrote. "I always try not to be petty, but I can't remember when I've enjoyed giving a speech more."
Succeeding -- and Then Cutting Them Off at the Knees
When Jill, a designer, was fresh out of college, she worked for a fashion industry bigwig who made Miranda Priestly from "The Devil Wears Prada" look kind.
"She was evil," Jill said in an email about her former boss, an executive at a major department store chain. "She made everyone around her nervous, scared, hide when she was coming and run to get out of her path when she walked the floors. A month before I was getting married, she called me into her office and told me I couldn't use the week after my wedding to go on my honeymoon, although she had known about it for almost a year, because it was September and that was our busiest time of year. I of course started crying and tried to tell her I was not crying because I was sad but because I was so angry. From then on, she would say in front of people, 'Don't say anything mean to Jill -- she might cry.'"
Jill eventually accepted a job offer from a vendor that designed clothing for her soon-to-be-former employer as well as many of the nation's other big department stores. True to form, Jill's boss did her best to get in as many jabs as she could before Jill's departure.
"She tried to come into my office and tell me they would 'eat me up and spit me out,'" Jill said of her boss. "I took the job and, within three months, had the line pulled from her store. It was on its way out anyway -- I just helped it along. My ex-boss was later demoted because of having that big of a line taken [away] under her reign."
Acquiescing -- and Then Throwing Their Rules Back in Their Face
As far as I'm concerned, Izzy, an IT professional turned entrepreneur, has the on-the-job boss retaliation thing down. Not only did he manage to throw his boss's words back in his face, he found a way to humiliate the guy in the process and keep his job.
"I worked for a clock watcher," Izzy explained. "If someone was a minute late to work, he threw a five-minute tantrum over it. An emergency once came up where the head of personnel could not get his PC working. I took it apart and fixed it, which was not really my job, but in an emergency I do what has to be done. When I finished, my official lunch break was almost over. I started to eat lunch and my manager told me to get back to work. I explained that I had been dealing with an emergency, as he well knew. He said he didn't care. Lunch was 11:30 a.m. to 12 p.m., not 11:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. I complained to the head of personnel, who tried to reason with him, but he refused to budge."
"A few weeks later," Izzy continued, "my boss had a problem with his PC and asked me to look at it. I took it apart and spread the pieces out across his desk. At exactly 3:30 p.m. -- I worked from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. -- I walked out, leaving the pieces there. He started shouting that I had to put it back together. I told him I worked to 3:30 p.m., not 3:45 p.m. He tried to have a negative comment put in my employee folder, but the head of personnel sided with me and reminded him that I was only following his policy."
Bosses Beware: Retaliation Happens
Managers both malevolent and benevolent, take note: Right or wrong, retaliation happens. And because you never know who you might be reporting to or doing business with in the future, you'd best treat every employee you encounter with respect and courtesy. Protecting yourself from future retribution -- or from having your computer's innards strewn across your desk and left there -- should be incentive enough to do so.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and former cubicle dweller. Her books include My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube. Follow her at @anti9to5guide.