Performance Management

Sweet Revenge: Could Your Employees Be Sabotaging Your Customers?

Employees intentionally engaging in behaviors that are damaging or disruptive are often referred to as “sabotaging” the organization’s functioning. Employee sabotage typically occurs as an act of retaliation or revenge for perceived injustice. There are a number of different types of organizational characteristics to which employees may feel they have been treated unfairly, thus prompting retaliation:
  • Distributive – outcomes received (e.g., adequate vs. inadequate pay and benefits)
  • Procedural – company procedures (e.g., easy vs. difficult project approval)
  • Informational – explanations for decisions (e.g., highly vs. sparsely detailed)
  • Interactional – treatment from others (e.g., respectful vs. disrespectful)
One of the most frequent ways employees are treated unjustly is through interactions with others, and it can be incredibly costly and destructive when employees retaliate against and sabotage each other. But what can be even more costly to organizations is when employees retaliate against poor treatment stemming from interactions from outside the organization by sabotaging customers. When employees are treated in a demeaning or disrespectful way by an organization’s customers, their retaliatory sabotage can cause a great deal of damage to all aspects of an organization –from reducing the bottom line to ruining its reputation. Consider the implications of this scenario:
A customer mistreats an airline employee during the check-in for a flight. The employee maintains a pleasant attitude and continues speaking politely even though the customer is verbally abusive. It appears the employee has handled the situation appropriately, but the employee can retaliate after the customer has left the counter by misdirecting the customer’s luggage to a different airport than the one the customer is flying into.

What affects the decision to retaliate?

Employees retaliate against customers in subversive ways to make up for being mistreated by them. However, the reaction an employee has to injustice inflicted by customers can vary according to two personal moral characteristics.
  • Identification – the degree to which morals are considered central to their identity. Individuals who view themselves as having strong morals may view sabotage as unethical, thus resist the temptation to get back at customers who treat them unfairly.
  • Symbolization – the degree to which acceptance of being treated unfairly is considered a symbol of acceptance of immoral or unethical behavior. Individuals who symbolize accepting or forgiving mistreatment (or “turning the other cheek”) as allowing and supporting mistreatment are likely to see retaliation and sabotage as an acceptable counterattack.

How employee performance is affected

Retaliating against customers – sabotaging the products or services provided to them –  not only has a negative effect on the organization’s reputation and repeat business, but also a deleterious effect on employee performance because the employee’s attention is turned away job responsibilities, decreasing his or her ability to perform duties. When employees have reached the point of retaliation they have likely already begun the process of emotional and physical withdrawal from their work.

Implications for practice

Many managers assume that closely monitoring employees will decrease the employees’ chances of retaliating against customers who treat them unfairly. While this approach may help in some situations, it is not a cure-all for preventing employee sabotage. Some promising alternatives for managers to consider are to:
  • Institute a “zero-tolerance” policy toward customers who treat employees unfairly. When employees feel that their management will support them, instead of solely assuming “the customer is always right”, they are likely to demonstrate a higher tolerance for negative customer behaviors because they know their supervisors will step in to ensure they are treated with respect.
  • Provide extensive training on techniques dealing with difficult customers, and encourage employees to share their experiences with each other. When effective strategies become second nature for employees, they are less likely to allow their own retaliatory reactions to come to fruition.
Interactions with unruly customers can be a source of considerable stress for employees who serve on the front lines of organizations. By supporting employees and providing them with ways to handle taxing situations, organizations can guard themselves against the negative effects resulting from sabotage against customers.

Interpretation by:

Kathleen Melcher

DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Skarlicki, D.P., vanJaarsveld, D.D., & Walker, D.D. (2008). Getting even for customer mistreatment: The role of moral identity in the relationship between customer interpersonal injustice and employee sabotage. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(6), 1335-1347.