An employee, sick of her new boss’s verbally abusive behavior, hatches a plan to exact her revenge: She lies in wait until the next time said boss goes on one of his screaming tears, then calls a friend outside the office; that friend, in turn, calls the abusive boss’s boss, posing as building security, and says there’s an emergency that requires immediate attention. Lo and behold, the higher-ups rush on to the scene, catch the screamer mid-rant, and fire him on the spot.
It sounds a little like the kind of elaborate scheme that would happen on Gossip Girl, or maybe on a spinoff in which all the characters quit being models and real-estate moguls and get low-level office jobs. But this particular scenario isn’t just real; it is, according to organizational psychologist Harvey Hornstein, the ideal way to stick it to a bullying boss.
Years ago, Hornstein found that nearly 90 percent of employees had suffered the abuse of a supervisor at some point during their careers, enduring things like humiliation, power-based mind games, and being blamed for the supervisor’s own mistakes. In a study published in March, and recently highlighted by the Association for Psychological Science blog, he provided a satisfying follow-up, drawing on real-life testimonials to identify the three key components of a good workplace-revenge plot.
“Successful payback is well-targeted (aimed at the abuser), well-timed (occurring at times that established a connection between the abuse and the payback), and well-tempered (motivated and crafted to end the abuse rather than merely inflict cost),” he wrote. The phone strategy worked, in other words, because it caught the bully red-handed, didn’t take down any other employees in its wake, and achieved a specific result.
But more than two-thirds of the payback stories he collected, Hornstein added, had failed to end the problem behavior. “Retaliating skillfully, more than one quarter of payback-seeking victims produced beneficial changes for themselves, their organizations, and, surprisingly, even for their
abusive bosses,” he wrote, but “unfortunately, the majority, aching to avenge the abuse they suffered, lashed out, more often than not harming themselves and their organizations” in the process.
For example, one Bank of America employee, believing he was unfairly blamed for problems with the bank’s payroll program, infected it with a virus; a worker at an insurance company, sick of her boss’s verbal beatdowns, began messing with her boss’s head by deleting small snippets of text from various files saved on her computer. Both actions were probably satisfying at the moment, but also did nothing to effect change (and in the bank employee’s case, may have even made life harder for some of his co-workers).
Hornstein also prefaced his study with a caveat: “None of what you are about to read,” he wrote in the introduction, “should be regarded as either encouraging or endorsing employee payback as the recommended response to boss abuse.” If you have to do it, though, at least do it strategically.