Workplace revenge

Workplace revenge refers to the general action of purposeful retaliation within the workplace in an attempt to seek justice.[1] Acts of revenge in the workplace are viewed by the retaliator as a defensive act in response to the offender’s unwarranted and unfair actions. When the offender makes the first move that is viewed by an affected colleague as unjust, the victim will often feel a need for retaliation.

Revenge is defined as the infliction of harm in return for perceived wrong. Workplace revenge is often initially considered a violent act taking place between colleagues within an organization. However, this type of revenge within an organization is often nonviolent and legal. Workplace revenge often consists of silent and non-confrontational acts that directly affect the other person. Some examples include decisions to work more slowly, refusals to help the colleague, or ignoring tasks set forth by the offender.

When an employee thinks his manager has not effectively handled unjust acts, he may feel the need to take matters into his own hands. Furthermore, many employees shy away from using the voice strategy to bring unjust acts to the attention of their superiors in fear or retaliation from either the manager or the organization as a whole. It can be deemed necessary by the victim of the initial unjust act to retaliate with either one act of revenge or several acts in order to create a level playing field. Forms of confrontational revenge include reporting the offender’s mistakes to a superior (beyond the initial unjust act) in an attempt to ruin the offender’s reputation, quitting, or getting others fired. In general, workplace revenge is about justice, restoring the balance of what is, or what is perceived as, fair. Employees that engage in acts of workplace revenge are not unprofessional or out of control employees seeking a major vengeance against the company, but rather the victims of interpersonal conflicts within the organization who are compelled to seek justice by their own means.[2]


Retaliation within an organization, specifically between colleagues, rarely impacts the organization significantly. However, the activity of revenge has a direct correlation with de-motivating employees as well as affecting productivity, therefore affecting the company’s bottom line. It is also an indicator that there is a problem that could possibly grow from a disagreement between two employees (whether confrontational or not) to a drop in retention rates and loss of otherwise productive employees.

For every eight employees who see themselves as the targets of revenge, one is likely to exit the organization entirely.[3] One way to combat revenge within the organization is to implement exit interviews. This is a way that companies can gain true, raw knowledge of what is really taking place within the organization, often because the exiting employee is no longer censored by a fear of possible organization retaliation.

Retaliation: work related vs. social

Acts of retaliation within an organization can be categorized in two ways: work related retaliation and social retaliation. "Work retaliation victimization involves adverse work-related actions that have the purpose or effect of negatively altering the target’s job and that are intended by the instigator or perceived by the target to be a reprisal for the target’s behavior."[4] This categorization of workplace revenge concerns work-related actions that are often tangible, formal, and documented in employment records. Examples include termination, demotion, poor performance appraisal, and cutting hours. These are actions by which a victim may feel the need to seek justice.

On the other hand, "social retaliation victimization involves antisocial behaviors that have the purpose or effect of negatively altering the target’s interpersonal relations with other organizational members and that are intended by the instigator or perceived by the target to be a reprisal for the target’s behavior."[4] This type of retaliatory action refers to behaviors between members of an organization, both verbal and nonverbal, that often go undocumented. Examples of this type include harassment, insulting, blame, threats, or the "silent treatment." These acts of workplace revenge have the purpose of negatively altering the victim’s interpersonal relations with other organizational members as well as potentially affecting work productivity.

Retaliation as a form of justice

In an attempt to seek justice as a response to what is perceived as an unfair act, an employee will often seek justice.[1] The concept of justice has been defined in three categories of justice:

There are forms of revenge that an individual may take against the organization as a whole, including theft, vandalism, or "milking the time clock." However, most kinds of workplace revenge are at the interactional level, between colleagues at a comparable level, or between an employee and manager. Revenge at this level is because it provides ample ground for personal violations of interpersonal exchanges: broken promises, insults, false accusations, and other misunderstandings.

Revenge as a coping strategy

The two common responses to one's unjust behavior are forgiveness and revenge.[5] When one perceives he has been the victim of unjust behavior, he will evaluate the situation and select the appropriate coping response for the negative experience. If the victim views the situation with anger and resentment, he chooses revenge as the next necessary step. On the opposite side, if the victim is able to let go of the negative emotions attached to the circumstances, he will choose forgiveness. Individuals are more likely to forgive a transgressor if they avoid holding the transgressor accountable for the offense and if the transgressor is apologetic.[6]

See also


  • Bradfield, M. & Aquino, K. (1999). The effects of blame attributions and offender likeableness on forgiveness and revenge in the workplace. Journal of Management, 25, 607-628.
  • Cortina, L. & Magley, V. (2003). Raising voice, risking retaliation: Events following interpersonal mistreatment in the workplace. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. 8 (4), 247-265.
  • Skarlicki, D. & Folger, R. (1997). Retaliation in the workplace: The roles of distributive, procedural, and interactional justice. Journal of Applied Psychology. 82 (3), 434-443.
  • Yoshimura, S. (2007). Goals and emotional outcomes of revenge activities in interpersonal relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 24, 87-98.
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