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Top 10 Ways People Get Revenge at Work

A man peeking over a desk in an office.

​Revenge. We've all heard the sayings: "Revenge is a dish best served cold." "Success is the best revenge." "Beware the fury of a patient man." "We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged."

In the workplace, employees find plenty of ways to get revenge. They spread unflattering rumors about their enemies. They hide their co-worker's possessions. They eat a co-worker's lunch. They delete work from a co-worker's computer.

Or how about this one: They do something nice for their enemy—though perhaps with an ulterior motive.

"Imagine someone is blatantly taking advantage of you and you turn around to give them a gift, or get them a job, or ask them for advice. Who becomes the powerful one in this scenario? Who becomes the petty one?" wrote Isaiah Hankel, a life and career coach and author of The Science of Intelligent Achievement (Capstone, 2018), on his website.

Here are the top 10 ways people exact revenge on their co-workers, according to a recent article published by Ladders News. Among the top 10 are:

  • They sabotage a colleague's work.
  • They spread an unflattering rumor about a colleague.
  • They quit their job in an unconventional way.
  • They hide a co-worker's belongings.
  • They scheme to get a co-worker fired.
  • They eat a co-worker's lunch.

"Revenge is a natural emotion and something desired by everyone at some point in the workplace," said David Barron, an employment lawyer who represents management at Cozen O'Connor in Houston. "Real life, however, is not 'The Office.' Petty annoyances and disrespect typically are ignored, and serious disputes are handled at the HR office and not through personal retribution."

Barron said one of the most interesting cases of revenge he recalls was when a male manager was having a romantic relationship with a female subordinate, though both were married to other people.  

"Everything was fine until the male manager announced he was getting a divorce and leaving his wife for another woman," Barron said. "The female subordinate—who thought she would be the one and was not—immediately made a complaint of sexual harassment, which resulted in the male executive being fired."

An Evolutionary Purpose

In the book Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct (Jossey-Bass, 2008), author and psychology professor Michael McCullough explains that revenge actually serves an evolutionary purpose. By exacting revenge, you make a person's gains less profitable, which helps prevent them from hurting you in the future.

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"I can't think of one person who at some point in their career hasn't dreamed about revenge—myself included," said Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of Human Resource Solutions in Northampton, Mass. "The desire for revenge comes when you feel you are wronged. In my case, I took that desire and wrote what became a very successful book—Suddenly in Charge (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2011). I used my former boss—the person I dreamed of getting revenge on—as an example of what not to do when one becomes a leader. I did this throughout the book. Of course, I didn't name her. I knew where to draw the line."

Long-Term Effects

A series of experiments led by the late Kevin Carlsmith, a researcher at Colgate University, showed that while most people believed revenge would make them feel better, in reality it did the opposite.

In one experiment, participants were divided into "punishers," who could get revenge on someone who double-crossed them during a game, and "nonpunishers," who weren't given this opportunity. Punishers and nonpunishers rated their feelings immediately after the game, as well as 10 minutes later.

"Punishers actually felt worse than forecasters predicted they would have felt," the researchers wrote. "Punishers even felt worse than nonpunishers, despite getting the chance to take their revenge. Ten minutes after the game, punishers continued to brood on the [double-crosser] significantly more than the others did."

Revenge in the Electronic Age

The electronic age has made it easier for vengeful workers to sabotage an employer's business. All an employee needs is a thumb drive or a mobile device to steal information.

A survey by security firm Cyber-Ark found that 88 percent of information technology workers would take sensitive data or company passwords with them if they were fired.

Those who sabotage their employers' computer systems—or do something that could undermine a firm's business—could well wind up in jail.

That said, it's hard to say how many such sabotage cases there may be; most companies never report such breaches, fearing that investors and customers may consider the breach a sign of lax security.

Best to prevent revenge scenarios in the first place, said David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, an HR outsourcing and consulting company in Norwalk, Conn.

"Managers need to take off the blinders and keep a close watch on their teams and the dynamic that occurs between their employees," he said. "They need to stay away from favoritism. They need to build trust with their employees to the point that their people feel comfortable coming to them with their concerns [and] issues. Same goes for HR."

Preventing Revenge

If a company has to announce layoffs—or deliver other bad news that could incite revenge—it's a good idea to tell workers why the company is taking the actions. For instance, if layoffs are genuinely to protect the company's bottom line, explain that to fired workers—along with the reason for why certain departments or positions were hit—so they don't feel they were singled out.

"The best way employers can protect themselves from disgruntled workers is to think before they act," Chinsky Matuson said. "Think about the consequences of your actions and how it might be interpreted by your workers. If you think you may have gone too far, then dial it back a notch."

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