Getting back at a bad boss

Let’s say your boss sexually harassed a co-worker to the point where she quit her job to avoid further advances.

Is it acceptable for you to retaliate against the boss?

Charness/Levine study

Gary Charness (UC-Santa Barbara) and David Levine (UC-Berkeley) investigated that question. They conducted experiments to determine where people drew the line on retaliating against bad bosses, presenting hypothetical scenarios involving improper behavior by bosses and asking participants to indicate what types of retaliation might be acceptable.

Here’s a summary of their findings from strategy + business (link here; free registration may be necessary):

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.

Gender patterns

Just as we’re seeing evidence that women are more likely to use indirect means to engage in uncivil work behaviors, the Charness-Levine study also found that women were more likely to support passive forms of retaliation.

Shades of the 90s!

The Charness-Levine study echoes a spate of “bad boss” books, aimed at a popular readership, that appeared in the 1990s. For example, in The I Hate My Job Handbook: How to Deal with Hell at Work (1996), Ellen Tien & Valerie Frankel offer up (with big doses of humor) various strategies for striking back at bad bosses, including harmless pranks, anonymous pestering, selective vandalism, mockery & humiliation, and outright sabotage.

A darker take on getting back is Martin Sprouse, ed., Sabotage in the American Workplace: Anecdotes of Dissatisfaction, Mischief and Revenge (1992), which is loaded with purportedly true tales collected by the editor.

Norma Rae, meet Dilbert

In a 1998 law review article about freedom of speech at work (link here), I suggested that the appearance of these books and the popularity of the comic strip character Dilbert, the disgruntled cubicle dweller, indicated that workers were seeking “outlets for pent-up anger and frustration stemming from their work experiences.” Very few employees felt comfortable voicing their opinions and concerns openly at work, so they identified with expression that had gone underground.

Back to the future

Fifteen or twenty years later, not much has changed. Too many workers legitimately fear retaliation if they engage in responsible questioning or criticism of management decisions. And with the continued decline of the labor movement, fewer workers have the solidarity of a union to address concerns collectively.

In such a milieu, workers are more likely to engage in passive, indirect, and anonymous forms of retaliation than to risk their jobs by speaking openly and honestly. So long as too many employers choose to engage in command-and-control management practices, oppose labor unions, and retaliate against whistleblowers, this will remain the case.


For the full article, Gary Charness & David I. Levine, When Is Employee Retaliation Acceptable? Evidence from Quasi-Experiments, Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society (2010), go here.

Hat tip to eBossWatch for the strategy + business article.

8 responses

  1. I am now old enough and far enough away from my college work environment to admit to retaliating agains a bully boss who harrassed the female staff with what would now be considered sexual harrassement plus outright nastiness. All of the women in the office chipped in and purchased an ad in the local paper that ran in the weekend edition. It read something like this, “6 FREE Purebred German Shephard puppies to good homes. Championship parents. Call only between 11 pm and 1 am or 4 am and 6 am. Don’t leave message – keep trying until you get through. xxx-xxx-xxxx.” On Monday morning, the boss came in bleary eyed, very grumpy, and when we asked what was wrong, he said some idiot at the paper had put the wrong phone number in an ad and he was up all weekend taking calls for free puppies. He went home at lunch and didn’t come back until Wednesday. It felt SO good.

  2. It’s been 5 months since I have laid eyes on the most horrific boss in my life. New job, new state, new life, which is all fantastic and I still have thoughts of revenge and want to make her life a hell like she made mine.
    The adult in me wont stoop to her level but the kid in me wants to knock her out! 🙂
    Now days I try to pick out the positives and what I learned from one bad year but man, do I pity her next victim!

    • Tom, while it’s possible you’ll be wrestling with those feelings for a while, in the meantime I wish you the best with all the good stuff that has come your way since then. Take care!

  3. are workers allowed to see slander emails that was sent in through the public to her boss that has a profound impact on a person’s job that has been very downgrading and demeaning to a person’s future in holding any other child related job ever but the police and/or my DA was not taken off me? even the twu was shown this email but no one has shown me so i do not know what was on the email/s only through a slip of the tongue through a co-worker. please help me as i am at a lost as what to do or where to go for guidence.

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