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Workplace revenge: Last laugh or career suicide?

(Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

After repeated warnings, Ben Neumann fired an employee whose relentless office pranks were upsetting co-workers. Neumann expected the event planner wouldn’t take the news well.

But he didn’t expect the ejected employee to sabotage company equipment on his way out the door.

Shortly after the termination, Neumann noticed two crucial parts of a $4,000 machine missing, rendering it useless.

Those pieces, for a granita maker, “are very difficult to get,” said Neumann, who runs Liquid Infusion, a mobile bar and beverage caterer in Melbourne, Australia.  “I suppose he had a good chuckle about that.”

Many of us have fantasised about getting even with a boss or colleague at one time or another (how about a subscription to a lingerie-of-the-month club? laxative-laced coffee, anyone?). And we cheer the internet “heroes” who publicly stick it to their employer, such as the content producer for a Taiwanese animation company who quit via YouTube video ] or the Goldman Sachs executive who resigned via New York Times op-ed, calling the investment banking firm “toxic” and “destructive”.

But just how common are these grand gestures of workplace vengeance? Is the emotional payoff of vandalising company property or hacking into the corporate computer system worth the professional risk? Or is there a more gratifying solution that won’t jeopardise your reputation (or legal standing)?

Anatomy of an avenger

Most people who seek vengeance against an organisation or a colleague aren’t sociopaths.

“We’re talking about normal people,” said Tom Tripp, co-author of Getting Even: The Truth About Workplace Revenge. In fact, he added, professional payback is “pretty common.”

The workplace jerks most likely to inspire retaliation include those who obstruct your goals; those who embarrass, insult or otherwise dress you down publicly; and those who break the rules, said Tripp, a management professor at Washington State University in the US.

That said, retribution usually mirrors the original offence in severity, Tripp noted. If someone chews you out in a meeting, you’re more likely to snub them later in the break room or badmouth them to colleagues than key their car or smash their laptop.

“There’s a certain sense of proportion or symmetry that people prefer,” Tripp said.

Put another way, most people are especially fond of their pay cheques.

As for on-the-job violence, employee vengeance is rarely a factor.

“Most workplace violence is not about revenge, and most workplace revenge is not violent,” Tripp said.

Statistics support this: According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 10% of workplace homicides between 1997 and 2010 were committed by a past or present co-worker.  According to the UK’s 2012-2013 Crime Survey for England and Wales, strangers committed an estimated 60% of workplace violence. Usually, the offenders that workers knew were clients or another person they’d met through work. 

Some non-violent workplace revenge could still lead to prosecution. “The only acts of revenge that are subject to criminal code are those acts that are crimes anyway, regardless of motivation,” Tripp said.

So if someone reports you to legal authorities for vandalising or stealing company property, you could be subject to whatever the legal penalties are for committing such an act in your geographic region.

When retaliation doesn’t pay

Darren, who didn’t want his last name used, struck back at a belittling boss in 2008 by registering him for a dating site, complete with unflattering photo and racy profile. He then sent the link to a several officemates. It didn’t take long before the boss was telling colleagues about the strange, unseemly e-mails filling his inbox.

“Initially, it felt good getting one back on him, albeit a bit cowardly,” said Darren, who had just graduated university and worked for a London call centre at the time.

Today, the young professional has a different take.

“It doesn’t sit right with me,” said Darren, who now works as an account manager for an e-commerce company. “Looking back, it feels a bit childish.” 

But that’s not the only reason retaliation ultimately might not be gratifying.

“For the revenge to be truly satisfying, you have to see that the offender learned the lesson,” said Tripp, citing recent research to this effect in the European Journal of Psychology. Otherwise, he said, “you don’t get the full sense of justice.” 

In other words, the person you’re punishing needs to understand that you’re retaliating because they were a jerk — tough to accomplish if you don’t want to get fired and therefore don’t want the boss to know it was you who left the rotting fish in his office.

The case for the high road

When Milo Shapiro worked for a US government agency in Albany, New York, a former IT employee, peeved about a bad performance review, earned legendary status by corrupting all the computer programs he’d written.

“It was still fully functional code,” said Shapiro, who’s now a public speaking coach at Public Dynamics in San Diego, California in the US. “But no one could ever make sense of it again.”

To make matters worse, the sabotage wasn’t discovered until months after the vandal left the company for a new position. After that, “his name was forever preceded with a seven-letter curse word that ends with ‘-ing,’” Shapiro said.

Not wanting to irk an entire company should be deterrent enough against exacting revenge, suggests Steve Shepherd, an employment market analyst at Randstad, an international recruitment agency.

“You have to think about the long-term impact on your career,” said Shepherd, who’s based in Melbourne, Australia. “It’s a very small world.”

What if you later need a reference from someone you castigated? What if a co-worker you confided in blabs about your acts of vengeance on social media?

Even subtle, petty acts such as excluding an irksome colleague from key meetings or communications can come back to haunt you. If you’re subverting your team in the name of retribution, “you’re doing your employer a disservice,” Shepherd said. And if you think the boss doesn’t notice, you’re kidding yourself, he added.

“If you want to get back at the company or individual you worked for, do it professionally,” Shepherd suggested. He recounted the tale of an acquaintance working in sales who recently resigned from a company that had treated him shabbily. The salesperson remained courteous throughout and was careful to honour his ex-employer’s no-poaching agreement.

“But once he came out of contract, all bets were off,” Shepherd said. “He won a number of major clients off of his former employer.”

As the old saying goes, sometimes living well — and finding success — is the best revenge.

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For the revenge to be truly satisfying, you have to see that the offender learned the lesson. — Tom Tripp