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The Big Payback

The Big Payback | Human Resource Executive Online The co-authors of "Getting Even: The Truth About Workplace Revenge and How to Stop It" offer some thoughts on why acts of revenge are ripe in today's economy and suggest ways HR leaders can help reduce incidents.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009
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What happens when a co-worker or employer does something to tick a colleague off? Some might just forget about it, bottle up the anger and move on -- but some might do something to get even.

Workplace revenge can come in the form of badmouthing, backstabbing, intentionally sabotaging projects or even trying to get someone fired, says Tom Tripp, a professor of management and operations at Washington State University Vancouver, and Robert Bies, a professor of management at Georgetown University.

After studying the issue of workplace revenge for 15 years, interviewing close to 2,000 workers from more than 100 companies, Tripp and Bies recently wrote Getting Even: The Truth About Workplace Revenge and How to Stop It. They say that today's tough economy is ripe for potential workplace problems -- and that HR managers can lessen the chances of revenge by helping to create a fairer workplace.

For the most part, workplace revenge is non-violent, they say, since most violence in the workplace is not revenge motivated. Revenge, as they see it, is what employees can do to make their co-workers' lives more difficult.

Tripp and Bies recently sat down with staff writer Jared Shelly to discuss how revenge reveals itself in the office.

Why did you write this book?

Bies: When Tom and I began to do this research, we would ask people 'Did you ever engage in revenge? And people would say, No, not me.' Then we reframed the question 'Did you ever try to get even?' [and they would answer,] 'Oh yeah, all the time! And let me tell you a couple stories.' That was the beginning.

What is your definition of revenge at the office?

Bies: Revenge is an act imposed on someone that you believe caused you wrong or harmed you, and you want to inflict some harm on them. Blame is key. Whoever you believe to be responsible for causing you wrongful harm, you will be motivated to engage in an act of revenge.

If you believe someone is 'getting away with it' and the formal system isn't taking care of it, you do.

Tripp: It's the nasty, everyday little acts. We're not talking about violence. Workplace revenge is not the same thing as workplace violence because most workplace revenge is not violent and most workplace violence is not revenge motivated. We're really talking about the little, nasty social things that we might do.

Bies: You want to make them look bad. You want to make their lives a little more discomforted.

Can you give me some examples of workplace revenge?

Tripp: Three shift supervisors [in a branch of the military] have been micromanaged by their boss and they're tired of it. [The boss would say] 'I don't care how trivial you think the decision is, you ask me first.'

They finally get together and conspire and they say, 'Let's do exactly what he asked. He wants us to consult him on the trivial decisions? We'll consult him on the trivial decisions.' And they went out of their way to find the most trivial decisions they could conjure up. They interrupt him while he's on shift, at home and they interrupt him in the middle of the night, because three shift supervisors covered the department 24/7 collectively.

It actually had a terrible ending that they never intended or saw coming. After a few weeks of this, the guy suffers a nervous breakdown and his career is basically over.

Bies: Another example concerns a vice president of HR who was involved in downsizing. It was very painful; a lot of people lost their jobs. He orchestrated this [cost-saving] strategy and he worked overtime to make it happen. Cutting headcount is easy, firing someone is the hard part.

Then he saw that raises occurred for everybody in senior leadership except him. So when he found this list and he didn't get a raise and everybody else got high raises, he felt really angry. He did all the hard work and they got all the raises.

So, trying to get even, he just sort of left that information out on a photocopy machine -- a very public area -- so that other people could see it. The intent was to make it look like an honest mistake but it wasn't so honest.

The problem with revenge is it may feel good in the moment, but what happened is the CEO of the company found out that he was the one who did it and he fired him. So revenge can invite counter-retaliation particularly if it's revenge upwards.

Is there anything inherent in today's workplace that makes revenge more or less prominent?

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Bies: Conditions are ripe for acts of revenge because people are worried about self-preservation and losing their jobs. They're looking at some individuals who are making a lot of money and keeping their jobs -- whether it be CEOs or the poster children at AIG -- while they're losing their jobs, getting their budgets cut or having to cut back on their salaries. That's when they take justice into their own hands.

Tripp: For some people, however, the economy acts as a restraining force at the same time. 'If I could afford to lose this job, I might do something a little more vengeful, a little more forceful, but right now, there's no jobs out there, so I won't act on those feelings of revenge.'

Bies: Since they may want to keep the job, [their acts of revenge] may be a little more underground, or acts that you can't attribute to them. A little more irritant types of things to get even, maybe a little more badmouthing outside of the workplace.

What role can HR play in reducing workplace revenge?

Bies: The first line of defense is really mangers and leaders in organizations. They've got to be much more vigilant and attentive. Pay attention ... . Listen more than it feels comfortable or normal. That's the first line of defense.

HR often gets brought in after it's too late. Things have escalated, they've gotten bad, but HR can really begin to promote fairness in procedures and processes and really work on training leaders and managers to act fairly with respect to their employees. You can lessen the likelihood of revenge by creating a fairer workplace.

Also, they should be behind [administering] quarterly employee-opinion surveys. You should be gathering data [and asking], 'What are some of the warning signs?'

Tom: Revenge is about getting justice. Somehow, that need for justice needs to be satisfied and the best way to satisfy it is through some sort of grievance system. If there's no grievance system, or if the avengers perceive it as unfair, the only way they think they're going to get any justice is by their own hands.

Where is the company's equivalent of the law-and-order system? Does the organization have some sort of system to adjudicate those offenses, so that someone who feels victimized can say, 'Well what can I do about this? I can take care of it myself -- 'cause I think I have the power to get away with it -- or I can turn it over to HR to the ombudsperson to the union shop steward etc.' If those options exist, it makes much more sense to take it there.

Bies: HR should also know how to have a difficult conversation with people and how to give [managers] certain skill sets to manage through conflict. HR can play a very active role in training and development, which is something HR needs to take the front line on, because we argue that this isn't just about anger, this is a strategic business issue.

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