Most Employees Retaliate If They're Slighted at Work
Skip to content
Organizations Leadership Jul 1, 2019

Most Employees Retaliate If They’re Slighted at Work

Here’s how managers can break the cycle of office conflict.

When targeted with negative behavior at work, employees are most likely to retaliate.

Michael Meier

Based on the research of

Lindsey Greco

Jennifer A. Whitson

Ernest O'Boyle

Cynthia S. Wang

Joongseo Kim

Workplace conflict can wreak havoc on office culture—from gossip that breeds more gossip, to the double-crossing colleagues who find themselves in vicious, never-ending feuds.

Add Insight
to your inbox.

How do employees wind up in these cycles of negativity? That is the central question Cynthia Wang, a clinical professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, takes up in new research.

Occasional, low-grade naughtiness is a normal part of most workplaces. But when misbehavior becomes endemic, offices overlook it at their own peril.

“It is highly costly to organizations, because it slows down efficiency and hurts morale that’s so key for organizational functioning,” Wang says—not to mention the reputational risks companies face if word of the negative culture gets out.

There is a lot of existing research on so-called negative workplace behavior, a category that includes severe misconduct, like sexual harassment, and more quotidian transgressions, like browsing Amazon when you should be finishing a project.

These studies have mostly focused on individuals, identifying personality or attitudinal trends among the bad apples who perpetrate the offenses. Yet in reality, some of the most intractable workplace misconduct isn’t a solitary pursuit. It involves at least two people: if there’s a bully at the office, there’s also someone being bullied. Wang and her colleagues wanted to capture that broader social context and understand how the targets of workplace behavior respond to a provocation.

The researchers hoped to shed light on a long-standing debate in their field: when people are treated poorly, do they respond in kind (“an eye for an eye”), do they escalate the bad behavior, or do they try to de-escalate and wind it down?

To find out, Wang teamed up with Lindsey M. Greco of Oklahoma State University, Ernest H. O’Boyle of Indiana University, Joongseo Kim of Pennsylvania State University–Erie, and Jennifer A. Whitson of the University of California, Los Angeles.

What the researchers discovered was robust evidence that people mostly seek to even the score.

“We find that it’s really more of an-eye-for-an-eye exchange in general, with some evidence of escalation too,” Wang explains. What’s more, the impulse toward giving as good as you get exists whether you’re the target of a subtle slight or a severe transgression.

The research also suggests how managers might more effectively stem bad behavior at its source.

Measuring Office Misconduct

How do you go about studying negative workplace behavior? Because the actions and reactions involved can be so complex, it’s not something the researchers could easily capture in a lab experiment. Instead, they opted for a meta-analysis—culling data from other published studies and putting them to fresh use.

This involved trawling through hundreds of journal articles about workplace misconduct and identifying the ones that captured usable information about negative workplace behavior by one party and how another party responded. In the end, the team’s sample, drawn from 207 studies (most of which collected data via surveys), included nearly 97,000 individuals and represented a diverse pool of industries, including healthcare, the service sector, and government.

“We find that it’s really more of an-eye-for-an-eye exchange in general, with some evidence of escalation too.”

The researchers only analyzed cases where more than one person was involved and where they could identify a clear target, whether that target was another person (as in cases of bullying or sabotage) or the organization itself (as in cases of absenteeism or workplace theft).

For each instance of negative behavior, the researchers were also able to determine whether an individual was the perpetrator or the target of the behavior, since this information had been captured by the original studies they aggregated.

The team sorted the data from these published studies into groups, determining whether each behavior was mild, moderate, or severe, as well as whether it was passive (e.g., not showing up for work), active (e.g., screaming at a colleague), or a bit of both (e.g., griping with coworkers behind the boss’s back). They also looked at the target of the behavior—whether it was directed back at the original instigator or displaced onto someone else (“you hurt me and I kick my dog,” as Wang describes it).

Analyzing these dimensions separately allowed the researchers to develop a nuanced portrait of negative workplace behavior and its aftermath. For instance, they could find out if severe misconduct, like sexual harassment, was more likely to yield an escalating response than mild misconduct, like gossiping; or if highly active forms of demeaning behavior, like bullying from a boss, might yield more passive responses, such as calling in sick.

The researchers weren’t sure what patterns would emerge but expected to see a mixture of escalation, de-escalation, and reciprocation, depending on the circumstance.

Payback Time

In the end, what stood out to Wang and her colleagues most was a noticeable tendency toward reciprocal, eye-for-an-eye forms of retaliation across all the different aspects of misconduct they studied.

To analyze how negative workplace behavior influences retaliatory responses, the researchers took average rates of retaliation within a workplace and used them to calculate how frequently comparable degrees of retaliation occur. Their statistical analysis revealed that as any one tier of negative behavior became more common, it was most consistently related to an increase in equal, eye-for-an-eye responses—that is, mild misconduct was most strongly associated with equally mild responses, and severe misconduct was most strongly associated with severe retaliation in response.

Similarly, the researchers found the strongest relationship between behaviors and responses that were equally active—so, active behaviors yield active responses, and passive behaviors yield passive responses.

“If one person is gossiping about someone else, or they’re sabotaging other people in minor ways, if they’re taking their resources or stealing their ideas, there’s going to be a response.”

However, there was also some evidence for escalation in response to certain kinds of misbehavior. Moderate (but not mild or severe) misconduct was often met with more severe responses, and balanced behavior—that which is not entirely passive, nor entirely active—was associated with more active forms of retaliation.

While the data don’t explain why this is the case, the authors speculate that middle-of-the-road negative behaviors may hit a sweet spot that makes them easier to elevate. “If it’s too mild, that might not be enough to spark escalation,” says Wang.

Analyzing whether people retaliated directly against the original offender or whether their retaliation was displaced proved to be the most challenging, because so few of the studies the team drew from included this information. However, based on the data they had available, the team did notice something intriguing—there was some evidence of de-escalation when retaliation was aimed at the person who had originally wronged you. Essentially, if Joe mistreats Bob, Bob’s retaliation is more likely to be less severe if Joe, rather than another colleague, is his target. This could indicate something about the power relationships at work in these situations, says Wang—for example, a minor slight may be the only form of retaliation you can get away with if the instigator is your boss.

The researchers also looked at demographic factors, such as age, gender, and cultural background, to see if these had any effect on retaliation, but didn’t find any consistent patterns. When it comes to engaging in negative workplace behavior, everyone appears to be on equal footing.

Stopping Retaliation at Work

Wang was surprised by the consistent, robust evidence for reciprocal retaliation as the dominant response to negative workplace behavior.

“I expected ‘an eye for an eye’ to an extent, but I also expected more escalation or de-escalation, depending on the context,” she says.

So, what does this mean for managers and executives? Since negative workplace behavior is relational, meting out punishment to individuals may not break the cycle. Rather, it might be more effective to focus on helping the clashing parties to work together to de-escalate the conflict. And because negative workplace behavior breeds further negative workplace behavior, the most important thing leaders can do is prevent people from becoming instigators in the first place.

“If one person is gossiping about someone else, or they’re sabotaging other people in minor ways, if they’re taking their resources or stealing their ideas, there’s going to be a response,” Wang says. “If you stop the one, though, you could stop the other.”

Featured Faculty

Clinical Professor of Management & Organizations; Executive Director of Kellogg's Dispute Resolution and Research Center

About the Writer
Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.
About the Research
Greco, Lindsey M., Jennifer A. Whitson, Ernest H. O’Boyle, Cynthia S. Wang, and Joongseo Kim. 2019. "An Eye for an Eye? A Meta-Analysis of Negative Reciprocity in Organizations." Journal of Applied Psychology.
Most Popular This Week
  1. How Much Do Boycotts Affect a Company’s Bottom Line?
    There’s often an opposing camp pushing for a “buycott” to support the company. New research shows which group has more sway.
    grocery store aisle where two groups of people protest. One group is boycotting, while the other is buycotting
  2. 5 Takeaways on the State of ESG Investing
    ESG investing is hot. But what does it actually deliver for society and for shareholders?
    watering can pouring over windmills
  3. Could Bringing Your "Whole Self" to Work Curb Unethical Behavior?
    Organizations would be wise to help employees avoid compartmentalizing their personal and professional identities.
    A star employee brings her whole self to work.
  4. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  5. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  6. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  7. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  8. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  9. 3 Tips for Reinventing Your Career After a Layoff
    It’s crucial to reassess what you want to be doing instead of jumping at the first opportunity.
    woman standing confidently
  10. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  11. Podcast: Does Your Life Reflect What You Value?
    On this episode of The Insightful Leader, a former CEO explains how to organize your life around what really matters—instead of trying to do it all.
  12. Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than Good
    Studies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
    To succeed, foreign aid and health programs need buy-in and coordination with local partners.
  13. Your Team Doesn’t Need You to Be the Hero
    Too many leaders instinctively try to fix a crisis themselves. A U.S. Army colonel explains how to curb this tendency in yourself and allow your teams to flourish.
    person with red cape trying to put out fire while firefighters stand by.
  14. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  15. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  16. In a World of Widespread Video Sharing, What’s Real and What’s Not?
    A discussion with a video-authentication expert on what it takes to unearth “deepfakes.”
    A detective pulls back his computer screen to reveal code behind the video image.
More in Organizations