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When is it acceptable to seek revenge against a bad boss? Never, occasionally, always?

Using a series of hypothetical situations, academics from California have analysed when employees consider it reasonable to “get back” at a boss. The research did not attempt to address the ethics of any such revenge, but merely looked at what factors an employee considered as provocative enough to warrant retaliation.

David Levine a professor of economics and industrial relations at the University of California Haas School of Business at Berkeley and co-author Gary Charness, professor of economics at the University of California Santa Barbara used a fictitious situation in which a boss, who had previously sexually harrassed an employee, then asked the employee’s friend for help in finding a missing file. In this scenario the friend was well aware of the location of the missing file and was also aware that it would involve the boss in additional work if it was not recovered. Respondents were asked questions such as “should the friend hide the file, or if asked, lie about its whereabouts, or simply keep quiet and not volunteer any information.

In a second scenario in which an employee was asked to recommend a marketing plan in the knowledge that plan A would reflect much better on the boss than plan B, respondents were more or less evenly divided with 51 per cent opting to help their manager by advising plan A and 49 per cent telling the manager to pick plan B.

The professors discovered that passive retaliation - not revealing the whereabouts of the file for example - was considered more acceptable than active retaliation, such as hiding the file.

“Intuition says that doing something is more of a serious act than letting it happen and not stopping it,” says Prof Levine. The pair discovered that respondents were more accepting of inaction as retaliation for a boss’s unfair behaviour than action, such as giving bad advice or lying.

The paper, When is Employee Retaliation Acceptable at Work? Evidence from Quasi-Experiments is published in Industrial Relations October 2010.

● Although the failure rate for start ups is exceedingly high, savvy entrepreneurs can use such setbacks as a stepping stone to a subsequently successful career.

Shikhar Ghosh a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School says that even a failed entrepreneur will have contacts among the venture capitalist community and have networked with more successful entrepreneurs. Experience is a very valuable commodity says Prof Ghosh.

However, he draws a distinction between the failure of an enterprise and the failure of the individual - such as illegal acts or a lack of integrity. The latter he says can blight an entrepreneur’s entire career.

The professor describes failure as “the engine that causes growth”. An acceptance of failure he adds is one of the differentials between growing economies and those that stagnate.

The paper, Why Companies Fail and How their Founders can Bounce Back, can be found at Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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