Head Off Revenge with Culture of Respect

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek October 12, 2018
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Deleting work from a colleague's computer. Hiding or moving a co-worker's possessions. Eating someone's lunch. Spreading rumors about another employee.  

It may take different forms, but employees do settle workplace scores by getting revenge. Payback can extend to supervisors, vendors and suppliers. And it can get ugly, like it did with the employee who threw and smashed her company-provided laptop after being told she was fired.

The woman had been placed on a 90-day performance improvement plan, followed by a 60-day plan and then a 30-day plan that included weekly check-ins and coaching meetings.

"We didn't see any improvement in her daily and essential duties," recalled Leyda Aleman, SHRM-SCP, founder and CEO of Human Capital Consultants International (HCCI) in Broward, Fla.

The irate employee—who claimed performance expectations were unrealistic—was escorted to her workstation to retrieve her belongings before leaving the employer, which was an HCCI client. When she arrived at her desk, "she turned around, grabbed a company laptop and smashed it inside her trash can," Aleman said.

A Boeing assembly-line worker, upset over a job transfer, extracted more extreme revenge in 2008 when he caused $24 million worth of damage to a military helicopter. The company discovered the damage, which would have prevented the helicopter from flying, two days later. The man pled guilty to one count of destroying property under contract to the government, according to a news account.

Aaron Holt, a labor and employment attorney at Cozen O'Connor in Houston, recalled the story of an employee who was responsible for scanning inventory. He sabotaged a supervisor by double-scanning the products, making it appear there was twice the amount of products on the shelves and reflecting poorly on the supervisor's sales numbers.

More commonly, workers seek revenge by complaining to HR about another employee, or by spreading rumors, Holt said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Difficult Employees and Disruptive Behaviors]

"It's really a people problem," he said. "Humans are social beings, and we don't always get along."

With a nod to the Queen of Soul, he added, "Respect, post-Aretha Franklin, is the best way to have a healthy workplace. It really is about respect in how you deal with other people and how you expect to be dealt with."

What Prompts Revenge—and What Happens Afterward

"People look to petty behavior as a way of demonstrating their dissatisfaction with others," said Alexander Alonso, SHRM-SCP. He is chief knowledge officer for the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) Knowledge Development and Certification division and author of the upcoming SHRM book The Price of Pettiness.

A survey of 478 people from InsuranceQuotes found that 51 percent took revenge because someone tried to make them look bad, closely followed by someone being rude or disrespectful to them. Other reasons for payback included someone taking credit for their work or ideas, being annoyed with the other person, having their work sabotaged, and someone eating their lunch.




A large majority—83 percent—said they got away with their vengeful acts, and most said they didn't regret what they did, according to the survey. Among the 17 percent who were caught, most were not disciplined. Of those who were, the most common form of discipline was a warning.

But revenge exacts other tolls, according to Alonso.

"The greatest victim in petty or vengeful behavior is the petty person themselves. With every act of pettiness comes a toll collected in missed opportunities—personal and professional—and shredded potential never to be regained."

People seeking revenge, he added, "might even be limiting their own career growth by failing to weigh the long-term outcomes of their own action."

Getting a co-worker fired or spreading rumors can result in a lawsuit. Sabotage on a continuous basis could be considered bullying; legislatures in 29 states have introduced workplace anti-bullying bills in recent years.

Revenge can also cause collateral damage in the workplace.

"Relationship conflict leads to lack of trust within a team and erodes communication," Alonso said. "The research shows simple things like the potential misunderstanding over social interactions can destroy team effectiveness."

Holt suggested creating a respectful work environment by defining acceptable conduct and applying that code of conduct consistently to all workers.

Principles such as integrity and respect could be included in the introduction to the employee handbook, Holt noted, along with a short description of how and why these principles are important to the organization. 

"These general workplace principles should not take the place of more traditional policies defining harassment, discrimination and other similarly regulated conduct," he said. "I regularly counsel employers to draft their conduct policies with language stating the organization's commitment to maintaining a work environment that is free of acts that may rise to the level of discrimination or harassment based on a protected class." 

Employers should not make exceptions for bad behavior by supervisors or other high-level employees.

"Such an exception would send the wrong message to the employees. Asking them to do as you say but not as you do, in my experience, is not very effective," Holt said.

If there appears to be conflict between two employees, HR can invite them to air their differences, with HR serving as a mediator to promote respectful dialogue.

"These confrontations rarely come out of nowhere and employers should attempt to first recognize potential issues and conflicts in the workplace," Holt said.

A discussion may be as simple as allowing both employees to give their side of what happened and then trying to find common ground to defuse tensions.

There are other ways to help employees learn to cope with hostile feelings, such as offering mindfulness training, said Lindie H. Liang, assistant professor at the Wilfrid Laurier University Lazaridis School of Business and Economics in in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. 

According to a report Liang co-wrote about abusive workplace behaviors, "to fully break the spiral of incivility, we first need to understand why employees engage in retaliation." 

"Organizations may want to look further into … these behaviors," she said, "and see whether they reflect larger organizational problems, such as unfair practices committed by management."

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