The truth about workplace revenge

Seven out of 10 people admit to spreading potentially harmful rumours at work and while their motives vary, seeking revenge against an employer can be a key motivator, research has found.

Employees spread rumours at work for different reasons, from trying to gain acceptance and fitting in, to trying to access information. But those who feel hard done by at work may be just as likely to spread rumours in order to take revenge.

Dr Kohyar Kiazad, co-author of the article Rumour as Revenge in the Workplace, says employees and employers often enter into a “psychological contract” when an employee starts a new job. It is that contract that sets the unwritten terms for how each party expects to be treated in the future.

Psychological contract

“The psychological contract might be explicitly spoken of or even just perceived. However if that contract is broken some employees may reduce their work effort or begin spreading harmful rumours in order to get revenge,” Dr Kiazad says.

Understanding the terms of the psychological contract is complex, Dr Kiazad says. For example, an employee who believes their wage will increase after a year’s service because they were told so by a supervisor, will feel hard done by if the pay rise does not eventuate. Even if the assumption about the pay rise was incorrect, the employee may potentially act out against the employee for breaching the terms of their psychological contract.

The vast majority of office gossip is just normal conversation. It is how people make sense of their workplaces.

Psychological contract breaches, due to a company restructure involving job losses or promotions that do not eventuate, are sometimes unavoidable, the research suggests. However open and honest communication with employees, as well as providing realistic expectations when employing new people is a crucial part of relationship building and minimising reputational risks for companies, Dr Kiazad says.

“That process of employee engagement needs to start as early as possible. It may be too late to start that process after an employee believes they have been unjustly treated,” Dr Kiazad says.

Rumours are most likely to be circulated within corporations at times of uncertainty when there are communication problems between managers and staff. In the absence of information, rumours are the product of an informal, collective problem-solving process.

Malicious or just a conversation?

Dr Peter Langford, a psychologist and director of workplace survey company, Voice Project, says workplace gossip is an inevitable and unavoidable part of human nature that is not always motivated by maliciousness.

“The vast majority of office gossip is just normal conversation. It is how people make sense of their workplaces. We are social creatures and we have access to small pieces of information that we share and exchange in order to gain an understanding of the workplace,” he says.

However, Dr Langford agrees that when a psychological contract has been breached, some employees act out in order to balance out the perceived misdoing. Spreading rumours in order to cause reputational damage to a company or manager is one tactic an employee might use, he says.

Providing employees with as much information as possible about situations as they arise, while encouraging open and honest feedback between management and staff, can help companies minimise the fall out of the spreading of harmful rumours.

“Communications within the organisation is terribly important.There needs to be consistent and relevant communication from management about what is happening within an organisation,” Dr Langford says.

“That said, leaders need to be authentic. These days we can smell management spin a mile away!”

Why we spread rumours

There are four core motivational goals for spreading rumours:

  1. Information gathering: People spread rumours in order to access further information. This is sparked by their need to be able to nimbly react to the environment in which they work
  2. A sense of belonging: Sharing information via rumours assists with relationship building
  3. Self-enhancing: Self-oriented motives for spreading rumours, such as undermining a rival’s career progression
  4. Seeking revenge: While not all people will spread rumours for revenge purposes, those who feel hard done by in the workplace are the most likely perpetrators.

Published on 12 May 2015