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Study: Voodoo Dolls Help Employees Pinpoint Problem Bosses

A stuffed doll with pins on it.

Feel like sticking it to the man? Venting that frustration on a voodoo doll—even an online version—can give an employee who feels abused by the boss a greater sense of justice without anyone getting hurt in the process, according to a new report.

Two studies—one involving a survey of 195 full-time working adults in the U.S. and Canada, and another of 150 business-school students at Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) in Waterloo, Ontario—looked at whether symbolically retaliating against an abusive supervisor restores a sense of justice.

The answer: yes.

Participants were asked to think about a personal, abusive workplace interaction, such as being yelled at or ridiculed. Some were instructed to use virtual candles, pins and pliers on an online voodoo doll, which they labeled with their boss's initials. Those who used the doll reported feeling a greater sense of justice than those who did not have that option, researchers found.

Like throwing darts at the boss's picture on a dartboard, using the dolls served as "harmless acts of symbolic retaliation against their supervisor," wrote lead researcher Lindie H. Liang, assistant professor at WLU's Lazaridis School of Business and Economics.

"People care about justice. It's a fundamental human need, and it's a goal that people carry around with them," Liang told SHRM Online in an e-mail.

Such harmless retaliation may also benefit the organization because anxiety, depression, absenteeism and poor job performance can result if the employee feels powerless against unfair treatment, according to the report. As HR Magazine reported in 2017, workplace stress costs the U.S. economy billions of dollars annually, and when incivility is unaddressed, lower productivity and higher turnover are among the results. A negative environment can also lead to workplace harassment and potential litigation.

Retailers recognize that sense of workplace frustration by selling products like the personalized revenge doll that has a slot where you can slip in a photo of the boss. And the Wembley Men's boss doll is covered in wording such as "approve time off request," "get off my back" and "cancel meeting." There's even a paper voodoo notepad for those for whom one doll is not enough to quietly dole out revenge.

But Liang and her colleagues are not advocating that employers distribute voodoo dolls to their workers and ignore the underlying problems causing the bad feelings.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Workplace Conflict]

"There must be some way to restore an employee's sense of justice without actually sabotaging their supervisors," she said in a news release. Employers should delve into the reason employees may want to resort to retaliation and foster a workplace environment where people are treated fairly—such as implementing a zero-tolerance policy on abusive supervisor actions, Liang suggested.

"We need to focus on more effective leader behaviors so that employees don't feel the need to retaliate in order to restore their sense of justice."

And there are other ways—such as mindfulness training—for employees to cope with hostile feelings toward their supervisors and reduce aggressive behaviors, Liang noted.

Organizations have a responsibility to create an environment where employees are treated fairly. 

According to the report, "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 and see whether they reflect larger organizational problems, such as unfair practices committed by management."  

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