Slow retaliation: When workplace payback is subtle, nuanced, and drawn out

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We tend to think of workplace retaliation as being immediate, dramatic, and obvious: An employee files a sexual harassment complaint against her boss and is savagely bullied in response. A worker complains of unsafe working conditions and has his hours reduced. A group of workers engage in a union organizing campaign and are terminated. And so on.

But there’s another, insidious form of retaliation sometimes visited upon those who raise legal and ethical concerns at work. 

This type of retaliation lacks the sudden oomph that easily trips the legal wires of anti-retaliation provisions and whistleblower laws. Rather, it may come in milder doses, such as smaller raises, fewer opportunities for advancement, petty criticisms and slights, and selective marginalization that stops short of complete exclusion. It is subtle, nuanced, and drawn out over time, sometimes morphing into a seemingly organic or cultural practice of treating a dissenter as the Permanent Other.

Less obvious and immediate, and cloaked in the subjective standards of the modern workplace, slow retaliation provides the perpetrators with a veneer of deniability. Even if the target has her suspicions, the tracks have been covered.

Slow retaliation typically occurs in insular, insecure, dysfunctional institutions, and it is often directed at someone whose strong performance would make sharp, full frontal retaliation all too transparent. Of course, if the target of such low-level payback ever commits a transgression or falls short in any way that opens the door for serious discipline or discharge, then the guns will come out blazing with righteous fury: Now we’ve got him in our sights. Fire away.

Legal claims for retaliation are easiest to win when the retaliatory behaviors are significant and come soon after filing a complaint or reporting a concern. By contrast, slow retaliation can be next to impossible to prove, requiring the complainant to piece together a collection of behaviors, often at the hands of different actors, in an attempt to show an orchestrated pattern in response to the triggering act. Short statutes of limitations may complicate matters as well.

The “good” news is that slow retaliation — at least in the lesser form described here — can be tolerable, falling short of behaviors that severely undermine psyches, careers, and livelihoods. This is hardly an ideal state of affairs, but in a world that often requires trade-offs in work situations, at least the target has some degree of self-negotiated choice.

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10 responses

  1. Hi Mr.Yamada,
    The “good” news is that slow retaliation — at least in the lesser form described here — can be tolerable, falling short of behaviors that severely undermine psyches, careers, and livelihoods” I disagree that it is tolerable. It is still retaliation and it is slower, non-stop to ruin the psyche of the target. The act of mobbing is criminal and the perpetrators should be treated as criminals no matter how lite the retaliation is. Thank you great information.
    Christina Hunt

  2. Hi David,

    I am a more recent doctoral student at WISR. I have been following your workplace bullying blog. I find it very informative and helpful. This one was especially poignant for me personally as I have experienced this kind of workplace bullying most often. As a psychotherapist working in the Bay Area this seems epidemic in agency work, especially bullying towards interns who are reliant on “hours” to get their licenses required to work in their field. I experienced this deeply at an agency where I was bullied for being too feminist and pointing out harassment and sexism. This agency works with domestic violence offenders. I worked with male violent offenders who were court ordered at remote locations at night as a woman. I experienced threatened violence towards me and when I talked about this in our group supervision i was alienated from the group, given dirty looks and told that it was my fault for being too feminist. I also experienced a form of sexual harassment from two male colleagues. After telling my supervisor about it I was manipulated into denying anything inappropriate happened in my experience. Fortunately I had a private practice at that point that I could support myself on, but this type of bullying caused me great emotional harm and again runs rampant in the Bay Area mental health agencies. Your posts are very validating to anyone who has experienced workplace bullying. Thank you for writing, Rosa WISR doctoral student

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  3. This describes exactly what was done to me before I was wrongfully terminated from my job of 25 years. Unfortunately the court system usually sides with the employer as they did in my case. Slow retaliation
    is definitely NOT tolerable. I was bullied for 8 years but the last 6 months which consisted of slow retaliation destroyed me physically and mentally. Now I suffer the added stress of financial difficulties, in addition to numerous ongoing medical issues caused by the stress. I’m a nice person but after what I went through and continue to go through, revenge is always in the back of my mind.

  4. Thank you, everyone for your comments. I did want to offer a quick clarification here in response to Christina and Betty. The slow retaliation I discuss here is, by definition, of a lower-level, less intense, and less malicious variety. It should not be confused with ongoing bullying or severe, extended retaliation intended to punish someone or drive them from the workplace.

  5. My experience of slow retaliation manifested, among others, in the employer dangling the carrot of improved conditions for the bulk of my tenth (and final) year there, and at the end I was let go. So — “subtle, nuanced, and drawn out over time, sometimes morphing into a seemingly organic or cultural practice of treating a dissenter as the Permanent Other” is not really tolerable — the bad feelings and stress and tears, which only quadrupled after being terminated. A year and a half later, I’m still suffering deeply, much more so than while I was actually there and waiting for them to make good on their promises.

    • It can be hard, almost impossible, to believe that some people actually enjoy these sick psychological games, but there are people who truly enjoy hurting people. That’s what makes the job FUN for them.

      My former supervisor explained one day that her job was boring and that what I was going through (what she was putting me through) made her job interesting. She seemed sincere. I guess she felt perfectly comfortable telling me the truth — no risk to her. At the time, I was so confused by that statement — it made no sense.

      Now I get it. It’s very simple. There are some very bad people in the world and they enjoy hurting good people.

      I got through that horrible experience and feel a lot stronger emotionally than I ever was. What helped me was counseling, antidepressants, and not working for a couple years. Now I’m making decent money with a good employer and I tapered off the antidepressants nearly a year ago. The great thing about good people is that we are good (and we are the majority).

      • BT, so glad to hear that you’re in a better place, both job-wise and personally!

        The good folks ARE in the majority, but those few bad ones sure do create a lot of destruction. Your account of that conversation with your former supervisor is chilling.

  6. Slow and drawn out. This is actually an advantage to the victim because it shows a pattern of repeated abuse that can lead to a determination of malice. A one-time emotional response that is not serious or significantly egregious is more liken to common human nature; one usually feels outrage and then calms down and realizes the response was over blown. Please keep good records and save all documentary evidence.

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