If revenge is sweet, and revenge is also a dish best served cold, does that mean that revenge is just desserts? A kind of karmic gelato? Maybe not, but apparently many people think that workplace revenge, at least, can be a kind of just deserts.
Most people agree on what constitutes bad behavior at work, across a wide spectrum ranging from being passively unhelpful (e.g., not telling a co-worker about a rescheduled meeting) to being actively destructive (e.g., reformatting the hard drive on a boss’s desktop computer). Everyone agrees that you just shouldn’t do these things. Except that, according to studies by professors of management and by professors of economics and industrial relations, large chunks of the working population — sometimes a majority, depending on the circumstances — actually say that stuff like that is permissible as long as it is done in retaliation for an injustice.
If you swipe your co-worker’s stapler, that’s not cool. But if your co-worker takes credit at a departmental meeting for a something you designed and implemented, and then you swipe his stapler, then a lot of people would be okay with that. If instead of swiping his stapler, you merely kept silent when he complained that it was missing, even though you knew where it was, then most people would be okay with that. Passive retaliation is generally considered more acceptable than active. Interestingly, the cost to the person upon whom revenge is wreaked does not seem to matter that much. About the same number of people who approve of keeping mum on the stapler whereabouts would also deem it okay not to tell the co-worker where he misplaced the thumb drive with the only copy of the presentation he has to deliver that afternoon.
Working people, and university professors, seem to think a lot about revenge scenarios. In one sense, there is a theme of empowerment: employees who have suffered a harm at the hands of another, a wrong that is not likely to be rectified through established channels, are seen as having the right to employ extraordinary measures to make sure that justice is done. Thus, behavior that ordinarily would be considered taboo in the office is considered by many (though by no means all) people to be permissible if it provides an otherwise powerless employee with a means to even the scales.
But in the long run, isn’t acceptance of the use of such extraordinary measures really an admission of disempowerment? If you think that lacing his coffee with sedatives is the only way to get even with a manager who falsely blames you publicly for his own mistakes, aren’t you essentially conceding that your own talent and diligence are no match for the manager’s duplicity? And if your talent and diligence are worthless, what value do you have as a worker? Whatever gleeful delight you take from watching the manager nod off in a meeting with his own boss comes at the expense of your own confidence in the good things you have to offer.
To paraphrase the old saying, working well really is the best revenge. Avoid the common and completely human urge to get back at your malefactor directly, and instead focus on doing the best, most recognizably effective job you can do. Demonstrating your own value is a far better way to enhance your own image and prospects than undercutting someone else’s value. And if it seems to you that you can never achieve the kind of recognition you deserve in your current environment — if the culture of injustice is so firmly entrenched that your good works are never properly recognized — then why waste time and effort in that environment? Take your package of skills somewhere else. Sure, there is something viscerally satisfying about imagining comeuppances, but in the end, such thoughts are just distractions from your own long-term success. And no revenge is as sweet as success.