When office work turns ugly

25-08-2004

Office life is fraught with tension. A colleague's laugh may get on your nerves; the boss's last-minute requests could ruin your weekend.

Many of us head to the gym or the pub to ease stress, but an increasing number are developing a taste for revenge.

Just take a look at the internet.

There are websites where you can post horror stories about aggressive, lewd, racist or sexist colleagues.

Others proffer advice on how best to get your own back, with methods ranging from the prosaic, such as hiding stationery, to the outright dangerous - like spiking drinks with laxatives.

Out of control?

These acts may seem trivial, but the problem with revenge is that if the cause of the resentment is not addressed, things can escalate very quickly.

Small acts of defiance and theft can eventually lead to vandalism, malicious lawsuits, violence and even death.

Cary Cooper is head of occupational psychology at Lancaster University's management school, and is concerned about the effect of greater frustration and anger in the workplace.

"I expect to see more revenge," he says. "The number of potential sources are enormous.

"The problem is that people store revenge up. They don't confront what is responsible for the problem."

Verbal agreement

What makes things especially tricky is that much of the conflict stems from the psychological contract that exists between an employer and employee.

Not documented, this agreement covers what both sides expect from any business relationship.

On her website, clinical psychologist Joni Johnston says there are "unwritten ground rules, assumptions and expectations that govern an employee's working relationship with the employer.

"When that contract is broken the employee, or employer, feels the same sense of betrayal as if a formal agreement had been violated - and the same desire for revenge."

So what can trigger this urge to get even?

Pretty much anything, the experts say, as long as it happens regularly enough.

Getting passed over for promotion and pay rises; being asked to work late, or through your lunch break; getting shouted at or abused.

Crank it up

The list is endless, and the requirements of many modern businesses only amplify already heightened emotions.

"There is more pressure on people at work," says Robert Westlake, who oversees an employee helpline as head of clinical psychological services at health insurer Bupa.

"We are linked to deadlines, computers and mobile phones. Some personalities thrive on stress, others don't."

The trouble with talking about revenge, however, is that very few people are willing to discuss it after the event.

Sure, everyone has anecdotes about colleagues, or friends of friends, who have taught their employers lessons.

But how many will actually admit to it?

One transport manager, who asked to remain anonymous, says that while he has often been abused verbally, it is very rare for physical threats to be carried out.

If anything, he says, it is often the people that shout the loudest that were the ones to leave the quietest.

For most of us, it seems, revenge is not so palatable after all.

Less a dish that should be eaten cold, and more something that needs, well and truly, to be put on ice.

By Ben Richardson
BBC News Online business reporter

BBC News

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