Reducing Employee Sabotage

Reducing Employee Sabotage | Human Resource Executive Online HR leaders need to change their mind-sets to stop employee sabotage, writes a human resource professor. He offers tips for ways to look at such incidents -- and those who are responsible for them.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009
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Over the years, I have been asked by organizations how to stop employee sabotage. Executives generally want to learn if there is a way to lessen the chances that the problem will occur.

There is a way -- but in my experience, it is neither quick nor easy. The truth is that the most important (and first) step to stopping employee sabotage requires organizations to think differently about sabotage. Management is often so angry at acts of sabotage that their only concern is to apprehend and fire the employee doing it.

But that kind of thinking only deals with the saboteur and not the underlying causes of sabotage. What needs to change? Your mind-set, and here are a few of the more important ways to change it.

You cannot solve sabotage problems by blaming the saboteur: Sabotage solutions require that an organization and its members accept shared responsibility.

It's easy to lay the entire blame on the saboteur, particularly when he or she engaged in the sabotage. But the reality is that, while the saboteur engaged in the act, many people and processes in the organization are responsible as well.

Think of it. Who hired the saboteur? What failed in the hiring process that didn't uncover the saboteur's tendencies? Who saw the event as it was about to occur and might have stopped it -- but didn't?

To solve the sabotage problem, you need to change the conditions that led to it, and many of those conditions are established by the organization and its management. Saboteurs don't operate in a vacuum -- they live in the environment you created for them.

Thinking this way does not mean that you are taking blame away from the saboteur. Instead, you are trying to see where the organization can change so that it doesn't happen again. If, for example, you house was burglarized, saying that leaving your doors unlocked and wide open was a cause of the burglary is not justifying the burglary -- it's just saying that it might be a good idea to start locking your doors.

You cannot solve employee sabotage when you are fertilizing it.

Of course, no organization thinks that it is fertilizing sabotage, even though many are in fact doing that. If I wanted to provide organizations with a formula to fertilize sabotage, I would offer a simple approach: Create an organizational climate that is filled with petty frustrations, mix in injustices and subject employees to supervisory abuse.

While nothing that an organization can do justifies sabotage, there is no doubt that it fertilizes the ground for it. Every injustice, frustration and abuse that is ignored may have no impact -- or it may come back to haunt you in the form of sabotage.

Remember, too, that you may not make the connection -- employees are generally too smart to retaliate right after something is done to them. They will wait and strike when the opportunity is right.

More importantly, in environments where employees are treated well, where there is a sense of shared goals, mutual respect and a transcendent vision, employees have little motivation to engage in sabotage.

You cannot solve sabotage if you are looking for psychopaths.

Characterizing all saboteurs as mentally unstable is comforting because it allows management to think that they are dealing with an individual who couldn't be stopped. But the characterization simply isn't true.

Most saboteurs aren't deranged psychopaths needing hospitalization. They are generally angry employees whose frustrations bubble over into sabotage. The sabotage itself becomes cathartic and diminishes the sense of anger and frustration that has grown over the injustices and abuse they have experienced.

You cannot solve employee sabotage if you aren't paying attention.

Sabotage comes in many forms, so you need to pay attention to it, largely because it can be masked as something other than sabotage.

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Most organizations see little acts of destruction and ignore them -- a broken piece of equipment, a broken window, a broken or damaged bathroom fixture may all be accidents, or they may be sabotage. There is often no way to tell in advance. But ignoring small damage is ill-advised.

It's not recommended that you assume all destruction is sabotage, but rather, that the organization create a log of such suspicious acts of destruction. Creating such a log will allow you to determine patterns of destructive activity -- patterns that may be linked to a department, a timeframe when such actions occur, a manager who might be triggering such destruction or even provocative organizational events that might have been the cause.

Such logs can point to the perpetrator and the causes. It can help show when such acts occur (for example, during labor negotiations or when new policies are set in place), link them to causes and help you to make choices that mitigate future attacks.

Additionally, logging all suspicious destruction can help to triangulate who might be the target of the sabotage -- particular individuals who are the intended targets, but whose attacks result in collateral damage for the organization.

You cannot solve employee sabotage if you simply treat it as a problem.

Sabotage should be thought of as the results of a blood test where you learn that something isn't right. Of course, you could take your test results, ruminate on them and spend countless hours complaining. That won't help. Doing something about the results will help.

Every act of destruction against your company is a signal that something is wrong -- not just with an employee but with something in the company. Learn from it and do something about it. Find out what caused it and fix the problem.

Unless you do, my research and experience tells me that the first act of sabotage you see will not be the last -- even if you fire the person who did it, new copycat saboteurs will make their presence known somewhere in the operations of the organizations.

Robert A. Giacalone, Ph.D., is a professor in the department of human resource management at Temple University's Fox School of Business in Philadelphia.



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