Is It Ever OK to Get Back at a Bad Boss?

Employees might be understandably upset if passed over for a deserved promotion or otherwise mistreated by their bosses, but is retaliation in the workplace ever acceptable? According to a recent study, employees consider revenge against a boss more acceptable if the retaliation is an act of omission or inaction rather than active efforts to harm an unfair boss.

Labor relations expert David I. Levine, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, co-authored “When is Employee Retaliation Acceptable at Work?” with Gary Charness, an economics professor with the University of California, Santa Barbara. They set out to determine what factors make retaliation acceptable to employees when a manager or boss misbehaves.

The research did not, however, examine the ethics of employee retaliation. While employee sabotage has a bad reputation, Levine notes that in some cases, “Retaliation may expose managerial misbehavior and could improve organizational effectiveness in the long term.”

Rating Retaliation

The study presented respondents with hypothetical scenarios and asked them to judge how acceptable they find an employee’s (hypothetical) response. In one scenario, a boss who has misbehaved needs to find an important file. Respondents found it more acceptable for an employee not to tell his boss where the file is located than for the employee to actually hide the file from his boss.

“Intuition says that doing something is more of a serious act than letting it happen and not stopping it,” Levine explained.

Researchers presented two scenarios to workers: 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.

Workers were asked to rate the retaliation on a scale of one to seven, from completely acceptable to completely unacceptable, and also to rate the degree of damage, e.g. whether replacing the file takes hours or weeks.

In the first scenario, hiding the file from the manager who sexually harassed the worker’s friend was rated as about 1 point less acceptable (on a 7-point scale) compared to simply not telling the manager where the file is. Respondents did not find it particularly less acceptable if the manager will have to put in a couple of weeks of his own overtime to recreate the information in the file, instead of only a couple of hours.

Passive vs. Active Retaliation

When presented with the second scenario of recommending a marketing plan, respondents who were given an active choice were fairly evenly split: 51 percent of respondents said they would help their manager by recommending the best plan and 49 percent said they would help by recommending the alternate plan that would 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 rose from 49 percent to 59 percent. The increase in retaliation due to the option to passively not tell was entirely among women.

Levine says the study holds valuable lessons for managers.

“Don’t surprise people,” he said. “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.”

The study appeared in the October 2010 issue of Industrial Relations.

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