Skip to contentSkip to navigation

Getting Back at the Boss

Passive retaliation against bad management finds its fans in the workplace.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: When Is Employee Retaliation Acceptable at Work? Evidence from Quasi-Experiments

Authors: Gary Charness (University of California at Santa Barbara) and David I. Levine (University of California at Berkeley)

Publisher: Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society, vol. 49, no. 4

Date Published: October 2010

When is it okay to “get back at” a boss? It’s a thought that has occurred to many disgruntled employees, whether they have been discriminated against, believe they were passed over for promotion, or feel their work is unappreciated. According to this study, getting revenge against a supervisor is more acceptable to employees when the retaliation is an act of omission or inaction — essentially not doing something — than when it is an active attempt to cause harm.

Employees’ willingness to retaliate in passive ways should give pause to managers on several fronts, the study shows. Unfair, inappropriate, or simply incompetent bosses, and their bosses, are on notice that acts of mismanagement may have far-reaching, albeit unseen, consequences. And managers need to mitigate the effect of bad news on employees by explaining the news as quickly and as compassionately as possible. Otherwise, says one of the authors, David I. Levine, management faces high risks of “passive withdrawal of effort” in addition to any active retaliation.

The researchers conducted surveys in the San Francisco Bay area, often on the region’s rapid transit trains, which are used by a wide range of workers.

The researchers distributed five survey forms, each with slightly different questions about two hypothetical workplace situations.

In the first scenario, a manager sexually harassed one of his employees, who quit to escape his advances and has not worked since. Now the manager needs to find a file he has misplaced and asks the departed employee’s friend in the office, who knows where the file is, for help.

Those surveyed used a seven-point scale ranging from completely acceptable to completely unacceptable to rate possible actions or inactions by the friend. One of the choices was not saying where the file was and another was hiding it. Depending on the choice, the file could remain missing for either hours or weeks, causing the supervisor to work overtime to re-create the lost information.

The researchers found that hiding the file was considered substantially worse than refraining from disclosing its location. Also, denying knowledge (or “playing dumb”) was seen as much worse than simply choosing not to share the information. However, those surveyed didn’t place much weight on the degree of damage that would be caused — i.e., whether replacing the file took hours or weeks of the boss’s time was only a modest factor in their decisions.

The second scenario involved a manager who unfairly gave a bonus to a friend in the office instead of to the best performer. The boss then turns to the overlooked employee for help in picking one of two marketing plans. Although both plans will work, the boss doesn’t know that the first will end up making another department look good whereas the second will reflect well on him.

In some cases, those surveyed were told that the boss was under a time crunch and needed a response immediately. In that case, the responses were divided: Fifty-one percent (playing the role of the overlooked high performer) said they would help the manager by recommending the plan that favored him, and 49 percent said they would vouch for the plan that would make another division look good. But when the time pressure was removed and participants were given the choice of ignoring the boss’s request, 25 percent took that route. That shift had the effect of increasing the share of those willing to punish the boss — either actively or passively — to 59 percent.

The researchers note that the increase in retaliation afforded by the option to passively punish was attributed entirely to women in the survey. This finding is consistent with previous research that has shown men are more likely to be directly aggressive. Women chose to get back at the boss much less than men when the only option was direct retaliation (under a time crunch, for example). But when offered a passive way to strike back, the percentage of women willing to retaliate in either active or passive ways rose to 68 percent, while men remained unchanged at 51 percent.

Bottom Line:
Getting back at the boss is seen as more acceptable when the retaliation is an act of passive resistance rather than a direct attempt to do harm. Mismanagement may therefore carry high hidden costs.

Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.