Grudges In The Cubicle

The best-known vendettas may take place in the corner office, but the cubicle is no stranger to sabotage. Revenge in the workplace has been the research interest of Georgetown University management professor Robert J. Bies since 1996, when he co-authored one of the first academic papers on the topic. Management Editor Jena McGregor spoke with Bies about why revenge is such a taboo subject in business and what managers can do to prevent destructive score-settling by employees.

What has surprised you in your research?

As I began, I would ask people: "Do you guys engage in revenge?" They'd say: "Oh no, we never engage in revenge." Then I would ask if they ever tried to get even with people, and they'd answer: "Oh, all the time." There's something about the word "revenge" that is very loaded. That's the hypocrisy of revenge in the corporate world. We say it doesn't exist, but it does.

How is revenge in the workplace different from revenge in other parts of our lives?

In the workplace, there are some real power differentials that may not exist in other institutions. So much of your identity and who you are is invested in your job. There are so many different ways people can do harm to you.

Why do we have such a hard time talking about it?

For institutions, the desired imperative is control, standardization, routinization. My point is that [revenge] should be predictive because I can tell you what the triggers are that can make it happen. That's what our research is. We've outlined a series of events—layoffs without warning, public beratings, budget cuts without explanations—that can cause people to take revenge. It shouldn't be a surprise.

So, can managers control vendettas in the workplace?

We need to be aware of the things that provoke it, but we also need to teach managers and leaders to treat people fairly. If you can train managers how to do that—give employees advance notice, provide explanations—it will mitigate the feelings of revenge.

But isn't much workplace vengeance pathological? Isn't it being done by employees who think they've been wronged when really they haven't been?

Can there be people who are psychologically maladjusted who see a provocation that doesn't exist? Yes. But it's more common that they're not [maladjusted]: They got provoked, and nothing was done about it. Then they have people around them who say: "You got screwed." This just keeps the emotion going.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.