Messing With The Boss' Head Sabotage is not just about gumming up machinery. Sneaky avengers find subtler ways to get back at the oppressor.
By Carol Vinzant

(FORTUNE Magazine) – For two years Thomas put up with the vulgar names that his boss, the manager of an Ohio bookstore, would hurl at him. Finally he couldn't take it anymore. Sure, he could quit, but wouldn't that be just what the boss wanted? "So I started thinking about revenge," he recalls. "My idea was a very modest one, but diabolically effective. It struck me one day when the boss was having one of his red-faced outbursts because he couldn't find a pen. I started taking pens. Every day I went through the entire store and discreetly pocketed any pens or pencils I could find, even crayons. My specialty was daredevil pen stealing--finding the most zealously guarded writing implements. People went to elaborate lengths to theft-proof their pens, by writing on them or rubber-banding or chaining them to desks and heavy rings. And they would come back from the bathroom, and the pens would be gone. My already preternaturally enraged boss reached glorious heights of apoplexy."

The point, of course, was not to steal company assets. Thomas didn't keep the pens; he just squirreled them away behind a backroom cabinet for several months until he quit. Years later friends at the store told him that a stash of pens was discovered when the cabinet was moved, and Thomas got his payoff: "It gives me immense satisfaction to imagine the utterly perplexed look on my boss' face at that moment."

Thomas' technique was unique, but his mission--punishing his boss by messing with his head--certainly wasn't. Sabotage against employers goes way back. The word itself is thought by some to derive from the action taken by disgruntled French weavers who threw their wooden shoes (sabots, in French) into a loom. Clogging a machine--either to slow production or to enjoy a break--has proved to be a timeless industrial sabotage technique, employed even today.

Lousy wages are the perennial complaint that inspires most sabotage, but subtler perceived injustice can spark revenge. If the agitators used a more traditional method of protest, we might see picketers outside corporate offices, carrying signs that read NAME CALLING ISN'T NICE or STOP MICROMANAGING ME! while chanting, "Down with meetings!" The more personal the offense, the more wily the retaliation. The sneaky saboteur, in fact, could be that quiet guy in the cubicle next to you.

Although we all like to think that we grew up when we joined the working world, we're still adolescents, prone to act out, especially if we can get away with it. How common is vengeance in the workplace? "I'd like to differentiate between those that do it as a regular pattern, which I'd say is about 30%," says Lynne McClure, a Phoenix management consultant, "and those that do this once in a while, which I'd say is all of us."

San Francisco researcher Martin Sprouse spent two years interviewing workers of all stripes for Sabotage in the American Workplace: Anecdotes of Dissatisfaction, Revenge and Mischief. Sprouse found a former Toys "R" Us floor manager who got back at his boring job by cross-dressing and repackaging a Ken doll; a Smith Barney broker who would randomly hit trading keys to see whether she could move the market; a department-store loading clerk who hung 135 shopping carts in trees behind the store. "Not everybody I interviewed had a story, but most did," Sprouse says. "It's not a foreign subject to anyone that's ever worked in America."

Because the topic has been scantily documented in the past, no one knows whether workplace sabotage is any more popular now than before, says Judi McLean Parks, a professor at Washington University's Olin School of Business. But academics are starting to pay more attention and urge employers to do the same. Many academics believe the changing social contract--some would say the abandoned contract--between employers and workers has turned workers into rogues. Put another way, employees were more willing to tolerate indignities when they got job and retirement security.

The cost of employee misbehavior, in all its many splendors and varieties, is nearly impossible to quantify, says Kevin Murphy in his 1992 book, Honesty in the Workplace. That's partly because the behavior runs the gamut from the truly aggressive (such as corruption) and the classic passive weapons of disgruntled workers: mockery, sloth, and malingering. In between we find modern psychological sabotage techniques such as "malicious compliance," which is the practice of meticulously following the letter of a boss' request but not its spirit. Workers everywhere know this behavior-modification technique: Drown a micromanaging boss in details, documents, and information. Widely overlooked, says McLean Parks, are crimes of omission: letting a machine break or abstaining from telling a boss big news.

While one academic school of thought labels the perpetrators "deviants," others believe mischief flourishes only under lousy management. McLean Parks takes a sympathetic view of those she affectionately calls "avengers"--drones who take up sabotage against mean-spirited/thickheaded/vengeful bosses. "Most people don't wake up and say, 'I'm going to be a rotten person today,' " she says. To that point, Daniel Levine, author of Disgruntled, says the best way to prevent sabotage is to treat employees well. "There are two reasons to do passive-aggressive things," explains Pace University professor Barry Miller. "One is because of immaturity and adolescence. The other is if you can't confront your boss." Often the root of employee bitterness is that old management bogeyman: communication. "Getting back is the way of communicating when you can't, or when you're afraid to speak up for yourself," says William Lundin, co-author of When Smart People Work for Dumb Bosses.

The subversive type prefers to be a phantom presence, instilling self-doubt and paranoia. "People are rarely blatant. If they're blatant, they're on the way out the door," says Heather Stone, president of Computers frequently provide a cover for really dastardly sabotage. Workers can stealthily send e-mail--typically profane or flirty--in the boss' name. There are other nasty tricks. Joe, a temp worker, had learned his boss' voice-mail password before she fired him. For months afterward he deleted her messages. "Not all the messages, or she'd realize something was up," says Joe. "But just ones where there was some urgency in the voice, so that her co-workers would start to get aggravated with her for not getting back to them."

It's hard to be totally anonymous: Workplace avengers feel the need to let people know just how clever they are. On the day he was fired from a Midwestern bank, a teller let co-workers know he would be calling in a bomb threat so that they could all go out for drinks. No one told on him. "Co-workers always know," says Stone. "They often love it, but they feel guilty." Still, even if no one tattles about stolen pens or fake e-mail, Stone offers perhaps the best reason to keep sabotage to yourself: "If you get found out, you're really, really, really uncomfortable. Not to mention fired."