Workplace Revenge

Prof. Levine explores when it's
OK to get back at the boss.

Prof. LevineHave you ever been upset with your boss? Would you hide a file to get back at him or her? Or maybe just not tell him or her where it is? According to a study by Prof. David Levine, employees believe retaliation against a supervisor is more acceptable if it is an act of omission or inaction, rather than an active effort to harm an unfair boss.


For his study "When is Employee Retaliation Acceptable at Work? Evidence from Quasi-Experiments" (Industrial Relations, October 2010), Levine and co-author Gary Charness of UC Santa Barbara presented hypothetical scenarios and asked study participants to judge how acceptable they find an employee's response. "Intuition says that doing something is more of a serious act than letting it happen and not stopping it," says Levine.


Researchers surveyed workers riding Bay Area Rapid Transit between San Francisco and the East Bay. The survey presented two scenarios: 1) a manager who has sexually harassed the worker's friend and needs help in finding a missing file, and 2) a manager who has unfairly passed over the employee for promotion and then asks the employee for help in choosing an effective marketing plan. The boss is unaware that one plan will make another division look good while the second plan will make him, the boss, look good. The question: Recommend plan number one or two?


Workers were asked to rate retaliation on a seven-point scale, from completely acceptable to completely unacceptable.


In the first scenario, hiding the file from the manager who sexually harassed the worker's friend was rated about one point less acceptable than not telling the manager the file's location.


In the second scenario involving a marketing plan, respondents who were given an active choice were virtually split down the middle, with 51 percent saying they would recommend the plan to help their manager and 49 percent saying they would recommend the alternate plan to make another manager and/or department look good.


However, when respondents were given the choice to punish the offending manager by merely ignoring his or her request, 25 percent took that choice and the total share with either active or passive punishment rises from 49 percent to 59 percent. The increase in retaliation due to the option to not tell (passive
retaliation) was entirely among women.


Levine says the study holds valuable lessons for managers. "Don't surprise people," says Levine. "When something is about to go wrong or goes wrong, tell your employees why. Managers face high risks of both active retaliation and passive withdrawal of effort if employees are harmed by what they view as a conscious management choice. To the extent that employees are harmed, managers should be sure employees see them sharing the pain, not profiting from employees' losses."


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