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Employee sabotage: a random or preventable phenomenon?

"I'll tell you what you can do," Mr. Watson said confidentially, leaning over the bar and handing Jones the beer. The other man at the bar bent toward them to listen; he had been silently following their conversation for several minutes. "You try a little sabotage. That's the only way you fight that kinda trap."

"Wha you mean 'sabotage'?"

"You know, man," Mr. Watson whispered. "Like the maid ain bein paid enough to throw too much pepper in the soup by accident. Like the parkin lot attendant takin too much crap skid on some oil and crash a car into the fence."

"Whoa!" Jones said. "Like the boy workin in the supermarket suddenly get slippery fingers and drop a dozen aigs on the floor cause he ain been pay overtime. Hey!"

"Now you got it" (Toole, 1980: 143-144).

When contrasted to what one silent, seemingly contented employee at a computer can do, the acts of sabotage suggested by the characters in John Kennedy Toole's New Orleans-based novel are pretty tame. While many quiet and undramatic acts of sabotage occur every day, there are those which are surprising for their daring, creativity, and potential impact on employers, customers and co-workers. Many of those acts take advantage of the technology-dependent nature of the modern workplace, and the increasing sophistication of the products manufactured there. Confidential information can be accessed, altered, destroyed, stolen, or distributed with a few key strokes. Component parts can be sabotaged, causing complex and expensive products to be compromised or to fail outright. Food and drug contamination has been made easier by the high volume production and distribution techniques characteristic of processed and prepackaged foods and drugs (Groves and Wright, 1989). Some rather simple acts can potentially cost a company millions of dollars in lost business, rework, damaged machinery, and liability.

HP Foods was forced to remove cans of baked beans from super market shelves after they were discovered to have slivers of glass in them. The subsequent investigation revealed that the glass had been deliberately added by either an employee or a visitor to the factory (Withington, 1990).

A Boeing Co. 737-400 twin-engine jet-liner in the final stages of production was discovered to have "highly irregular" wire cuts buried inside a thick bundle of wires feeding a power system. Boeing suspected the wires may have been cut by an employee. . . . "Everybody on site is an employee. So that would be a conclusion that one could draw" (The Wall Street Journal, April 4, 1990).

After reviewing published accounts in the popular, professional, and academic literature and numerous interviews with business and security firm executives(1), a number of overlapping general motivations emerge as likely explanations for most acts of employee sabotage. Knowledge of these motivations and of the various acts themselves should improve our ability to minimize both their likelihood and their potential impact (Crino and Leap, 1989). This presentation will create a working definition of employee sabotage and will discuss the motivations which seem common to those behaviors. It will also make recommendations on how to reduce the likelihood of employee sabotage and how to limit the effects of sabotage that may occur.

The range of sabotage activities is wide, encompassing everything from stopped-up toilets (Guenther and Lipman, 1987), to compromising the safety of the space shuttle (The Wall Street Journal, August 29, 1988). For example, undergraduate business students generated a list of 51 different methods of sabotage when asked to do so for a research study (Giacolone and Knouse, 1990). As varied as sabotage behaviors may be, they share some common elements: all of them constitute deliberate interference with normal company activities and relationships, and each is characterized by prior thought and appreciation of likely consequences.(2) The intention is to damage, disrupt or subvert the organization's operations for the personal purposes of the saboteur by creating unfavorable publicity, embarrassment, delays in production, damage to property, the destruction of working relationships, or the harming of employees or customers. Sabotage activities are carried out by all levels of workers. Blue-collar workers have in the past been most likely to participate, but today with widespread job loss, white-collar and professional workers find themselves with sufficient motivation to become involved (Jenkins, 1992). The only differences among these workers appears to be in the type of sabotage engaged in. White-collar and professional workers are more likely to write a memo or tamper with a computer system than destroy machinery or tamper with a product.

There is no way of knowing how widespread sabotage is since there aren't any valid statistics. Companies often don't know whether sabotage has occurred and when they do know, it is often in the company's best interests not to report it. Experts believe that sabotage is surprisingly widespread and on the increase. Every manager with whom this topic was discussed had a personal story regarding sabotage in their current or past organization. Most acts of employee sabotage appear to be routine and have limited impact, such as the occasional destruction of product, bouts of the "Blue Flu," or the spreading of rumors. Especially worrisome to the security professionals interviewed, however, were the increasing opportunities to use computers in sabotage. The increasing dependence on the use of computers for essential activities and the susceptibility of fragile electronic data and computer networks to tampering were high on their list of concerns.

Motivations For Sabotage

To Make a Statement or Send a Message

Some employees may believe that the firm is engaging in acts that are immoral, unsafe, or otherwise wrong and that they have a responsibility to call attention to those acts. Often, employee actions of this kind are taken because of political, moral, or religious beliefs. On occasion, the saboteur will go public in the hopes that through publicity the act will evoke widespread sympathy for his or her position.

Four sailors were disciplined when they questioned the safety of the nuclear reactor program on the Nimitz aircraft carrier during a Seattle television station interview. The sailors charged that crew members cheated on exams because of inadequate training, that radiation leak test results were fabricated, and faulty hardware had been installed on the ship. The four also threatened to sabotage the vessel's reactors to draw attention to their complaints (The New York Times, August 20, 1990).

In order to halt the government's privatization of Entel, the national telephone company of Argentina, employees damaged phone equipment, cutting off communication in 12 of Argentina's 23 provinces (The New York Times, April 30, 1990).

To Prevent or Encourage Corporate Change

Some employees may fear change, and consequently resist it. Sabotage may slow the rate of change or alter the nature of the change altogether. Employees may leak information to the public to jeopardize mergers, stock sales, or construction projects. They may attempt to scare off an acquiring firm by demonstrating potential employee difficulties if their firm is acquired, or by leaking negative data regarding sales or potential liabilities. Employees may even go so far as to create liabilities through product tampering.

In an attempt to prevent a merger between their bank and another, employees leaked confidential information, supplemented by false information, to stockholders in an attempt to influence their votes on the merger (The Greenville News, November 16, 1990).

Sabotage may also be used to strong-arm management into behavior preferred by the saboteur. Union members have been suspected of setting up and exposing the vulnerability of a plant prior to contract negotiations as a warning to management (Leap, 1992). Maintenance employees can become key figures in sabotaging locks, installing remote radio-controlled devices which can be used to commit sabotage during strikes, and damaging sources of electricity and water as a means of disrupting operations. During the 1980s airline employees discovered that if they followed every FAA operating procedure exactly as written (known as "work to rule"), they could cause major delays in air-line schedules. This activity was an effective method of impressing the airline companies with the solidarity and commitment of union employees.

David's Cookies scrupulously hired only card carrying union members to do the construction work at its store in Manhattan. Two days before it was to open, the contractor arrived to find all of the electrical wiring torn out. A note on the door said: "You hired the wrong union" (Guenther and Lipman, 1987).

Persuading management to agree to different contract terms was considered the possible motive for the tragic New Year's Eve fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in Puerto Rico which killed 96 people. Members of the local Teamsters union had rejected a labor contract minutes before the fire broke out (Irwin, 1987).

Alaska Airlines threatened to hire permanent replacement workers if its employees went out on a companywide strike. To avoid any potential for subsequent job loss, employees threatened to ground individual flights without notice. This strategy has pressured management by scaring away customers without risking any jobs. It has been labeled "Create Havoc Around Our System (CHAOS)" by the employees (Levinson, 1993: 38).

To Establish Personal Worth to Others, or be the Center of Attention

Some employees engage in sabotage as a means of affirming their personal value, or to bask in the glow of attention from others. It is the employees' desire to improve their status among those they wish to impress.

Mr. Richard Angelo, a nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip, Long Island, was accused of injecting patients with a muscle relaxant derived from curare. He confessed in written statements to injecting an unspecified number of patients with drugs to induce respiratory failure so that he could then heroically resuscitate them. It appeared that he wanted to be seen and acclaimed as a hero. At least four patients died (Cohen and Quittner, 1988; Pitt, 1989).

In order to be the center of attention, a night shift computer operator deliberately crashed the computer system on 56 different occasions. After $500,000 was spent on trying to solve the "problem," he was caught when a security camera videotaped his sabotage. Up to the time he was exposed he was never a suspect; he was always especially helpful to the engineers who worked on the mysterious crashes. The attention he received from everyone helped to offset his loneliness and depression (Findlay, 1987).

Employees with a need for peer acceptance may also use sabotage to gain entry and status in the subculture of "problem" employees (Crino and Leap, 1989).

To Gain a Competitive Advantage Over Co-workers

In situations where employees perceive themselves as being in competition with co-workers for promotions, salary increases, and favorable attention from management, they may resort to sabotaging the work or reputation of those co-workers. These acts of sabotage can include spilling coffee on someone else's work, withholding or lying about important and necessary information, losing important documents, and compromising co-worker reputations through rumor, blame shifting, records alterations, or goading fellow employees into self-defeating political behaviors such as unnecessary confrontations with superiors. The intention is to enhance one's own reputation by undermining the reputations of others.

The use of shared software and the networking of personal computers provides opportunity to gain access to the offices of the competition without benefit of a key, or requiring the dead of night. Reports can be altered, files can be destroyed, non-existent appointments with clients and co-workers can be made, real appointments can be erased, and the appearance of wrongdoing or the exercise of poor judgment can be created in the co-worker's own files.

A newly promoted vice president of a bank bragged about the ingenious method he used to beat his primary competition for the promotion. He cracked the network messaging system so that he could read all memos regarding the promotion. He also sabotaged the work group software by manipulating the appointment calendars of his competition. "They would miss important meetings and be sent on wild-goose chases, only to look like complete buffoons when they showed up for appointments that had never been made" (Dvorak, 1988: 78).

To Gain Revenge Against Management or Co-workers

The employee may have been shown disrespect, passed over for promotion, given additional responsibilities with no pay increase, denied adequate resources to do the job, or didn't receive what he or she considered adequate credit for work performed from co-workers or management. These are the classic "disgruntled" workers so often credited for acts of sabotage. "These workers have called in bomb threats to their workplaces, tampered with computers, set fires, aimed death threats at supervisors, called customers to malign their ex-employers, spread rumors about the personal lives or professional behavior of others, made deliberate untraceable, minor errors or untraceable conspicuous errors, and even dropped sleeping pills in their supervisors' coffee" (Willis, 1986: 26). The point to be made here is to cause the company or co-workers so much trouble that they will have been paid back adequately for the perceived grievance. Often these saboteurs will scheme to find just the right retribution, and will sometimes want to be present when the "victim" receives his or her just due.

A vengeful computer programmer created a virus which would wipe out two sections of memory in his firm's mainframe at random, then duplicate itself, change its own name, and execute automatically one month later if a predetermined value was not reset in a specific location in memory. The system crashed twice, and the firm lost about half of its sales commission records--168,000 of them. They simply vanished without warning. It seems that the programmer was caught using the firm's computer to write and store letters regarding his personal tax matters, was reprimanded and eventually fired. He refined the virus on company time after his reprimand, and returned to execute it after he was fired. Even though his keys were taken and his password removed from the system, he entered the premises at 3 a.m. with a duplicate set of keys and entered the computer system with an unauthorized backdoor password (Joyce, 1988).

Employees of a drug company, given advance notice of a layoff, attempted to adulterate batches of medication (Schacter, 1987).

American Motors Corporation closed its Toledo, Ohio plant in 1985 to prevent further sabotage by employees. The employees were angry over the acceptance by the UAW of only $300 per employee as repayment for 1982 union concessions instead of the thousands they believed they deserved. Among other things, employees dented production vehicles, painted some of them "improper" colors, and participated in illegal work stoppages (The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 1985). AMC said that in all, several hundred vehicles were damaged (The Wall Street Journal, April 30, 1985).

A bakery worker, upset at being terminated, sought revenge by returning to the bakery after closing. He set about changing the inscriptions on the preordered and already decorated cakes. On one birthday cake, he replaced "Happy 95th Birthday," with "Pack It In You Old Bag!" On a wedding cake he added the inscription, "This is The First Step To Divorce Court, Sucker" (Radio news account)!

In the past there was some comfort taken in the knowledge that after an employee was fired, his or her potential for sabotage was limited by lack of access to the premises. In the world of computer networks, personal computers, modems, and backdoor passwords, disgruntled former employees can be pretty dangerous sitting at their own kitchen tables. In retail sales there is always the danger that former employees interested in sabotage could return to extract revenge as customers.

To Have an Impact in a Large and Faceless Bureaucracy

In an age of mergers, corporate acquisitions, mass layoffs, and hostile takeovers, individual employees may feel like pawns in a series of buyouts and reorganizations. Loyalty is reduced, and there is less concern for the welfare of the company, allowing employees to rationalize behaviors they might not have ever considered before. They may feel buried and anonymous in large organizations where they have little input into the policies that affect their daily work lives. They may simply have a strong desire to make their presence felt. In any case, sabotage allows them to maintain some semblance of control over their work environment. They can slow down production, cause problems for which they can feel directly responsible, make deliberate errors, or allow a faulty product to leave the company. Much of what they do is to reinforce a belief that they make a difference, that they have an impact when they do their job well and when they don't.

To Satisfy a Need to Destroy, To Seek Thrills

Employees have thrown beer bottles at plant windows, slashed tires on company vehicles, defaced vending machines, set fires, and damaged expensive equipment for no apparent reason other than a desire to destroy or see something go wrong.

An employee who is bored may resort to sabotage to add some excitement to the workday. Changing the time on the punch clock, or pulling the fire alarm may add just the right level of excitement to an otherwise boring day. Sabotage may become a cloak-and-dagger game of outsmarting authority figures. The "game" proves to the employee that one can manipulate the system for one's own enjoyment and avoid detection.

In February 1990, Marshall Williams was sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted of destroying computer files at Southeastern Color Lithographers, Inc. It seems that Williams began to destroy data shortly after he began work. When customer names were called up gibberish would appear. At other times cursors would disappear, preventing employees from entering data altogether. Invoices disappeared from the database, requiring repeated reentry. Employees began to yell profanities at each other and many quit, as the strain of lost data, missed production schedules, lost business, and long hours took their toll. "I had lost my employees. I had lost the morale . . . We didn't have long before we would go bankrupt," said Mr. O'Pry, the store's owner. An employee suspecting sabotage wrote a program which trapped Williams as he attempted to erase accounting files. Mr. O'Pry believes that Williams "simply enjoyed using his computer wits to gain power over other people by making their lives miserable" (Carley, 1992a).

The electronic mail system at IBM was jammed when a prankster sent a Christmas tree mail message a few Christmases ago. A Christmas tree appeared line by line on the recipient's computer screen. When the recipient cancelled the slowly developing Christmas tree message, it was automatically sent to everyone on his or her mailing list. This process continued from employee to employee around the world until electronic gridlock resulted (The Greenville News, December 19, 1987).

Employee enjoyment was one possible explanation for the Ken doll dressed up in Barbie's clothing discovered in a Tampa Florida toy store. An examination of the package revealed its seal was intact. Whether the cross-dressing was accomplished at the factory or the toy store, it seems likely that employees wanted to create a little excitement (Anderson Independent-Mail, July 21, 1990).

To Avoid Responsibility for Failure, or to Avoid Work

Employees may believe that sabotage will shift the blame for failure from their shoulders to elsewhere. An act of sabotage which would provide an excuse for a delayed or inferior product takes them off the hook.

Employees may simply wish to avoid work and sabotage allows them to do so. Employees can deliberately break machines or tools, neglect maintenance and overload machines causing breakdowns, or intimidate or otherwise convince other employees to conspire to avoid work.

In 1985, the IRS received unfavorable publicity when it was announced that employees had destroyed 27,000 tax returns and approximately 60,000 inquiry letters from tax payers to avoid processing them. A new computer system proved so unreliable that employees were overwhelmed with work (Barrett, 1985).

For Personal Gain

This motivation usually results in behavior which slows down the work in order to create opportunities for overtime or other forms of additional compensation. Other behaviors include stealing or compromising data to set oneself up with jobs or compensation from competitors. Many of these acts take advantage of easy access to computer programs used to manage funds, organize customer records, or communicate.

During the construction of the Marriott Marquis Hotel on Times Square, someone poured concrete into toilets in an apparent attempt to prolong the construction job (Guenther and Lipman, 1987).

In a mixed motive case, a former General Dynamics computer progammer was arrested and accused of planting a logic bomb that would have wiped out vital and irreplaceable data from the billon-dollar Atlas Missile Space Program. He was disgruntled because he did not believe that he had been accorded the credit he deserved for his work. He had resigned from the company and was waiting for the logic bomb to go off so that he could extract revenge, and have an opportunity to offer his services as a consultant at a substantiatly higher salary, to help reconstruct the lost data and determine what happened to it (The Anderson Independent-Mail, June 26, 1991; Wallace, 1991).

"At AT&T's British headquarters in London, three technicians set up their own outside company with a 900 telephone number (which charges anyone who calls that number). Then the technicians allegedly programmed AT&T's computers to call that 900 number repeatedly, running up huge bills, which AT&T paid" (Carley, 1992b: A1).

HydraPak, Inc. said it discovered sabotage in several O-rings awaiting shipment to a NASA contractor. The O-rings, which contain fiery gases within the space shuttle's booster rockets, appeared to have been slashed with a razor blade. There was no evidence that any of the sabotaged O-rings had been installed on a space shuttle. The company declined to comment on news reports that a company employee cut the rings, so that she could later "discover" them and earn a special bonus for doing so (The Wall Street Journal, August 29, 1988).

To Vent Personal Anger Created by Nonwork Problems and Frustrations

Some sabotage is the result of issues having nothing at all to do with the company. These acts are taken by employees who have personal problems and are perhaps disappointed, disillusioned, or frustrated by life. Although these acts are deliberate, they are random in the sense that they cannot be traced to any specific company or co-worker activity. The only link with the company is that the employee spends a lot of time at work and consequently has opportunity. These acts are usually physical in nature, entailing the destruction of product, tools, or machinery. Although deliberate, the acts are not well thought out, and often have no intended consequence other than making the employee feel better and perhaps more in control of his or her life.

Overview of Motivations for Employee Sabotage

The motivations for employee sabotage are varied, but the consequences can be quite troublesome and potentially expensive for the employer. Although the behaviors just discussed make for interesting and sometimes amusing reading, each one compromised the well-being of the organization. Clearly some behaviors are more serious than others; poisoning patients, slicing space shuttle O-rings, and tampering with medication are far more serious than unkind comments written in icing on baked goods. But nevertheless, any company would be better off without sabotage behaviors. While it is possible to develop a strategy to address and thereby prevent a few of the sabotage motivations from occurring, it is impossible to eliminate them entirely. To the extent they cannot be eliminated, it might be possible to reduce the impulse to act on the motivation (by making behaviors which harm the company less appealing), or to limit any damage that can be done. The following recommendations address reducing the potential for sabotage to occur, and limiting the damage which may result.


Employers should approach employee sabotage from a number of directions simultaneously. They should try to reduce the likelihood of sabotage by not hiring those likely to engage in it, and by working to reduce employee motivations and opportunities for sabotage (Crino and Leap, 1989). It is also important to plan ahead to develop means to limit the impact employee sabotage can have in the event that it occurs.

Reducing the Likelihood of Employee Sabotage

Assess job applicants carefully. Many organizations believe that they do a better job of screening applicant credentials than they actually do. When hiring employees always check the applicant's references and work history. The widely held belief that checking isn't worthwhile because former employers will never provide useful information is not entirely correct. Companies don't always enforce their policies (Solomon, 1990), and there are methods of getting around the policies of those that do (Amend, 1990). Further, if you secure the applicant's written permission to obtain detailed information from references, it is more likely that employers will report documented events in a previous employee's work history which could alert you to potential problems (Bureau of National Affairs, May 20, 1993). At a minimum, previous employers can verify the general employment history of applicants, including dates of employment, salary, and positions held. It is not uncommon for applicants with less than honorable intentions to manufacture or embellish their work histories. Checking that history can reveal fabrications readily. Pay close attention to frequent changes in jobs and investigate the reasons why the applicant moved from one job to another. Be suspicious of employees who claim multiple incidents of maltreatment at the hands of former supervisors and co-workers. This may be an early warning signal of an employee who will always feel persecuted and is more likely to commit sabotage or a crime at work. Careful screening should ensure that the employee will have those skills necessary to perform the job to acceptable standards. Employees who feel overwhelmed by their job demands may experience considerable frustration and react through sabotage.

There is also limited evidence that certain personality characteristics, notably hostility, may be related to the acceptance of sabotage behaviors (Giacalone and Knouse, 1990). This line of research suggests that at some point in the future personality assessment may help in determining the degree to which an employee may tolerate and/or engage in sabotage behaviors. Integrity testing may add important information to the selection decision as well. Although it should still be approached with caution, during the past decade integrity testing has earned new respect from psychologists as important psychometric issues have been addressed by test developers and researchers (Sackett et al., 1989). Although more research is needed on integrity testing, the American Psychological Association has provided qualified support for it (The Bureau of National Affairs, 1991; Fuchsberg, 1991).

Train employees. Training is often the key to ensuring that employees will accept established performance standards, new technology, or other changes in the workplace (Geber, 1992; Leap and Crino, 1993). Training minimizes the disorientation and frustration that change sometimes creates (Wexley and Latham, 1981). An added benefit of training is the obvious and deliberate investment that the company is making in the employee. Depending on how the training is presented, the employee can feel important and valued since the company is willing to invest in him or her.

Design jobs which create excitement and foster a sense of loyalty (Macher, 1992: Patrick and Manning, 1990). The firm should consider job enrichment programs as a means to reduce monotony, enhance employee control over job matters, and provide job challenge (Griffin, 1982; Hackman and Oldham, 1980). Team building activities contribute to an employee's identification with co-workers, and hopefully the organization. Self-managed work teams, when done properly, encourage cooperative behaviors among co-workers, commit employees to continuous improvement and lifelong learning, and allow each employee to be personally responsible for accomplishing organizational goals. Self-managed work teams have the potential to create an atmosphere where employees are not bored, co-worker conflict is less likely, and people feel that their work is meaningful and valued.

Create an atmosphere of justice, trust, fair treatment, and ethical behavior in the workplace. Train supervisors and management as to the importance of fair treatment of employees and ethical behavior in all regards. This is an especially important means of creating a belief that fair treatment and ethical behavior are valued by those in authority. Employee sabotage may be encouraged by vague or nonexistent policies that regulate behavior in the workplace, or a permissive attitude about bending the rules or engaging in unethical acts. There are some workplaces where "competition dictates straddling a fine line between shrewd and shady. 'What a lot of people do is, they hang their ethical hat at the door'" (Adler and Lamber, 1993: A1). This is an atmosphere where sabotage behaviors are more easily rationalized.

Keep employees informed; trust requires that information be shared. Many employees equate being well informed to being trusted and valued. Rumor will often take the place of unshared truth, and no matter how bad the facts, rumor tends to be much more negative than the real situation (Nixon, 1990). Create a mechanism for sharing information which encourages face-to-face dialogue in a nonthreatening atmosphere.

Ensure equitable personnel policies exist in the company. Purge politics from human resource processes which determine wages, disciplinary actions, promotion opportunities, job security, and status. Employees who believe that the employer is acting capriciously or unfairly are more likely to commit sabotage than those who feel that a sense of organizational justice prevails.

Develop reward systems which recognize the contributions of each employee in an equitable manner. Feelings of unrecognized performance can fester, developing into perceptions of maltreatment, and cause hostility and bitterness. Supervisors should recognize employees with praise when appropriate, and the firm should provide a more tangible recognition. A sense of injustice can be created by neglecting the employee's need for equitable recognition.

Performance appraisals and appraisal interviews that are administered on a frequent basis allow employees to "stay in touch" with their supervisors and clear up smoldering problems before they erupt into acts of sabotage or employee crime (Crino and Leap, 1989). Allow performance appraisals to be appealed by the employee so that unfair treatment can be identified and dealt with objectively and quickly. Set realistic performance standards and ensure that employees are capable and confident of success. Participative goal setting activities like management by objectives can increase worker commitment to perform. Don't micromanage performance; allow it to vary within acceptable levels without penalty. Often, minor changes in performance have little to do with the efforts of the employee and criticism may just create uncertainty, frustration and resentment for those already doing their best. Eliminate the fear that so often accompanies discussions of performance, and try to create an atmosphere where everyone tries to do their best, and attempts at improvement are supported whether successful or not. Recognize that there is a "difference between problem employees and employees with problems" (Hobson, 1989: 9). Almost all employees will at one time or another have problems which may affect their job performance. Some degree of understanding in short-run situations or a timely referral to an employee assistance program may prove to be more appropriate than formal disciplinary actions and might prevent employees with problems from becoming problem employees (e.g., Rafts and Morely, 1990; Stuart, 1992).

When disciplinary action is necessary, ensure due process, match the punishment to the offense, and respect the employee's right to confidentiality (Leap and Crino, 1993). Many nonunion companies are providing opportunities for binding arbitration of employment disputes in order to minimize perceptions of unfair treatment and subsequent litigation (Bureau of National Affairs, 1993; Lambert, 1992). Disciplinary overkill compromises management's relationship with all employees, not just the saboteurs. If an employee is caught engaging in sabotage, do not look the other way. Pursue the behavior by submitting it to the formal disciplinary system. When an employee must be terminated, be aware that it is a traumatic act for both the employee and the supervisor. The supervisor should be trained to handle the situation. It is a mistake to assume that because someone can hire effectively, they can also fire effectively. Employees may experience feelings of rage, fear, denial, confusion or depression even if the termination interview is conducted well; matters become more complicated when the termination is handled badly. "Workers are most likely to lash out when a termination--because it is patronizing, poorly explained or callously delivered--strips them of their dignity" (Schacter, 1987). The supervisor must be aware of how to conduct the termination interview, and how to deal with the employee's reactions. The training should be supplemented with meaningful outplacement support, and counseling for the employee.

When reductions in force are necessary, work with employees on changes which might forestall wholesale layoffs--job sharing, reduced workweeks, and early retirements all may mitigate the impact and reduce perceived injustice. When mass layoffs are necessary seek professional advice on how to present the decision, and support the terminated employees as best the company can afford (Nixon, 1990). Major employee concerns of continuing medical coverage, personal financial planning, and job search should be addressed. It would be wise to recognize the psychological needs of mass layoff survivors as well. Many times they feel guilty, stressed, overworked, and worry about their own job security (Sugarman, 1993). This may result in unwarranted negative interpretations of future company decisions. As a general rule, concern for the emotional well-being of employees is important (see for example, Quick et al., 1992).

The last suggestion for creating an atmosphere of justice, trust, and ethical behavior is rather simple--keep your word. Management should not promise what it cannot do, and it should keep its promises. Keep the spirit of your promise, not just the letter of it. It is the spirit that is really important, because it is the spirit that has created a psychological (implicit) contract with your employees. The extent to which the psychological contract is kept influences the level of trust and loyalty in the organization.

Stress the compatibility of employee and company interests. When the employee perceives mutual interests with the company there is less likelihood that he or she will consider doing anything which could harm it. The firm should create orientation programs which emphasize the mutual dependence and shared interests of workers and the company. Job design interventions like self-managed work teams, which encourage direct employee participation in continuous improvement and customer satisfaction activities help to create a perception of a common purpose. Establish programs which create supportive environments for employees who must meet the competing demands of family and work responsibilities. A recent survey of 2,400 Johnson and Johnson workers' reactions to the company's work and family programs found that those who felt that their supervisors were supportive of their family needs "experienced less stress, were more loyal to the company, more likely to recommend it as a place to work, and were more satisfied with their jobs" (Bureau of National Affairs, May 6, 1993: 144).

Work with and enlist the support of union leaders to discourage employee sabotage. Some employees assume that union leaders automatically approve of underhanded acts against management.

When sabotage is detected and cannot be traced, publicize the sabotage to employees and emphasize its impact on operations. Employees must realize that when sabotage occurs the company is compromised, and operations may have to be suspended to avoid a loss of public confidence. This doesn't work in anyone's best interests, except the saboteur's.

Reduce the Opportunities for and Minimize the Impact of Employee Sabotage

Take security seriously. Whatever precautions are taken to safeguard facilities, information and products from employee sabotage, they should be part of a coordinated effort designed by professionals. A patchwork of security software and hardware of widely different levels of sophistication and unknown compatibility probably won't give you the level of protection you need.

Train supervisors and employees as to the specifics of the system, the precautions they should take, and how to deal with their suspicions regarding co-workers who appear to be engaging in sabotage behaviors. Carelessness will create opportunities for the saboteur. One common act of carelessness is the lack of care in protecting computer passwords. Very often, one only needs to consult with the pull-out writing surface of someone's desk to find their current password. Obviously this degrades the level of security in place. Employees should be held accountable for security issues. They should have a good understanding of the importance of security, the safeguards in operation, and their responsibility to ensure that the safeguards work. Security-related activities should be considered part of the job, not something which interferes with getting the "real" work done. For example, backing up and storing safely important computer files at the end of each business day is often considered by the employees involved as an obstacle to effective job performance. Yet, when the files contain the accounts receivable for the firm, a fire or other physical damage to the computer system, or a virus or other software sabotage, could compromise cash flow and seriously jeopardize the financial health of the firm. Security activities should be part of every employee's job description, and initial orientation, appraisal interviews and reward systems should emphasize employee responsibilities and expected performance in this regard. There should be an organizational culture which supports security-related activities on the part of all employees.

Limit access. The most important issue involving the reduction of opportunities for sabotage is the limitation of unauthorized access to facilities, information and products (Crino and Leap, 1989; Mercer, 1986). This includes actual physical access as well as access through computer networks. Usually it is relatively easy for a firm to control the physical access to defined areas in a building. For example, when feasible, companies should control the flow of employee traffic through especially vulnerable areas. Electronic security systems should be installed which recognize only a few passwords or identification cards for areas where you wish to limit physical access. Whenever possible, the process itself should minimize access to product and thereby reduce opportunity for sabotage.

In the early summer of 1993, individuals across the country claimed to have found syringes in cans of Pepsi. Charges of employee sabotage were reported in the newspapers and on television shows. The company, using videotaped footage of the production process demonstrated that cans were open-end down until seconds before they were filled and sealed. To further bolster the company's position, the contamination was claimed to have been found by individuals across the country. This would have required coordinated syringe sabotage in widely separated bottling plants over a period spanning months (product identification codes provided this information), as well as an incredible coincidence that the syringes were discovered within a matter of days of each other. The company was vindicated as those making the claims were either arrested for making false reports or recanted. The main strength of the company's defense was in its clear demonstration that the packaging process reduced opportunity for contamination of the kind charged to near zero (Zinn, 1993).

When access to vulnerable areas cannot be tightly controlled, an alternative is to control access to the facilities, information and product contained in those areas. The ability to do this will vary widely depending upon the particulars of the firm. For example, in large open production areas it may be difficult to do more than maintain a list of authorized employees and to check each name as they enter the area. In other cases, it may be possible to color code the areas, and match the area color to the authorized employees' uniforms or color-coded identification badges. Keyboards for personal computers can be locked in special cabinets or with special covers to prevent use by those without keys. When personal computers and networks are open to large numbers of employees, steps should be taken to protect sensitive information from unauthorized access. This is typically done by encryption of files, a system of passwords, security software or other means to build physical or software barriers to unauthorized access (see for example, Frazer, 1989; Mercer, 1986; Withington, 1990). Employees using moderns from remote locations can likewise be denied access to particular files, or outright entry to the system during nonbusiness hours. After employees are dismissed be sure to purge passwords and inform security personnel that these employees are no longer allowed on the premises. Replace all software to which they had access during their employment with copies taken from original master programs. When the employee was involved in writing computer code, review all code written by the employee for some period prior to termination. Be especially aware of the potential for backdoor (unauthorized) passwords to be created in your system. Review all requests for previous employees' passwords to be purged to ensure that they were indeed removed from the system. When possible, ensure that the individual using the computer system is really the employee authorized to do so. For example, modems make it a little easier for one employee to gain access using another's password. When the system is entered from a remote site, there is no physical presence to serve as a check that the authorized employee is the one using the system. A ring-back feature is sometimes used to guard against this problem. The system will accept the phone call, record the phone number from the remote site and disconnect the call. The system will then check the number against the authorized employee's phone number and reconnect the call if they match; otherwise authorities are alerted.

Improve ability to trace sabotage. The ability to identify which employee is responsible for sabotage activities can serve to both discourage sabotage and to limit the length of time an employee can safely engage in it. For many saboteurs avoiding detection is very important. The better your ability to identify where your people were and what they were doing, the higher the likelihood of eventual identification of the saboteur, and the more risky the sabotage behavior will seem to the employee. A method of linking activities, whether they are production-, distribution- or computer-oriented, to specific individuals will improve your ability to trace sabotage if it occurs. For example, even when computer file access is authorized, software should be in place which can both identify who accesses sensitive information and temporarily capture for review any changes made to it. Video cameras to record the entry and exit of employees from restricted areas would also improve the firm's ability to trace sabotage behaviors back to the responsible individual.

The Encyclopedia Britannica Company devised a system which would limit the likelihood that a disgruntled employee could make undetected changes in the encyclopedia manuscript and that those changes would be published. In 1986, an editor who had just been fired, substituted Allah for Jesus Christ and changed the names of other historical figures to current Britannica executives. The software not only caught the changes, but also recorded the time and password of the employee making them. A confession followed and the company's reputation for accuracy in the encyclopedia remained intact (Malcolm, 1986).

Assume that some sabotage will occur and plan ahead. There is no question that a determined employee can find a way to create a problem. No matter how elaborate a system for security you use, someone will find a way around it. The best you can accomplish is to make it difficult, to increase the likelihood of identifying the individual, and to limit the impact of the behavior. Limiting the impact of the behavior requires additional planning. Safeguards might include improved quality control when products can be tampered with, and multiple person coordination and approval whenever important computer code is changed or monies are disbursed.

Take advantage of improving technology which would permit inexpensive, wholesale examination of the product For example, when cyanide-tainted Tylenol capsules (not considered an act of employee sabotage) resulted in seven Chicago-area deaths in 1982, the Food & Drug Administration tested 2 million of the capsules for contamination, destroying the product in the process. Now, using light reflection optical equipment and a method called near-infrared-reflectance analysis (NIRA), the differences between how a normal product reflects light can be compared to the light reflected by suspect product. NIRA has already been used to detect capsules tainted with arsenic, cyanide, and other poisons (Business Week, 1987). This method can be used as an inexpensive means to screen a large volume of production before it leaves the manufacturing facility. (Open shelf tampering as was the case with Tylenol, is a different issue, best solved by tamper-proof packaging.)

Backup programs and data bases should be kept offsite so that sabotaged files can be replaced easily. Printouts of master copies of applications should be compared with current software on a regular basis so that any changes can be identified easily before too much time has passed (Frazer, 1989). Antiviral programs should be run daily by every employee who has responsibility for a computer, especially those networked to others. Unauthorized software should not be allowed on any company computer. Aside from the danger embodied in shareware or other bulletin board downloaded software, dangerous code in these programs may escape detection for longer periods of time because they are easily overlooked and there are no master programs with which to compare them.

Alternative locations where work can be shifted should be considered as a backup to compromised equipment and computer software. A number of companies are available which can provide information and assistance in planning backup locations and equipment (Jeffery, 1987). The bombing at the World Trade Center in February, 1993 demonstrated what these disaster planning firms can accomplish. Some World Trade Center companies were back in business at other sites within a few days because of assistance from these firms. Consider specialized insurance to protect computer data, software, and hardware in the event of significant damage. This will limit the financial costs of replacement.

If a tampered product or sabotaged machinery could cause serious harm to customers (e.g., food, drugs, toxic emissions), the reputation of the company, or the financial stability and future of the firm, prepare a disaster plan in advance. Include in the plan methods for recalling the product, informing the public, handling the publicity, including the media, and managing the liability. There are a number of companies capable of helping with such a plan. The University of Southern California Center for Crisis Management was established to study how crises are managed by businesses and to offer assistance to companies interested in establishing a plan. According to Ian Mitroff, co-director of the center, top management should put themselves in the place of an "intelligent adversary" and ask, "What is the most creative way I could wreck this company?" And then, "What is the most intelligent way we could respond" (Jeffery, 1987: B1; see also, Mitroff and Shrivastava, 1986)? Whatever the answer is to that question should form the basis for the crisis plan. The example cited earlier demonstrated that Pepsi was prepared to defend its product using the same public media which widely-publicized the charges of employee sabotage. High level executives allowed themselves to be interviewed regarding the charges, and took advantage of the opportunity to reassure the public of the safety of the product (Zinn, 1993).

Clearly, the actions taken and the expenditures made by a firm to minimize the likelihood and impact of employee sabotage will be based on the possible damage that can be done. And, one might assume that the larger the firm, the greater that potential damage. However, small firms heavily dependent upon reputation, customer good will, with perhaps underinsured inventories are potentially more vulnerable to serious damage than larger firms.

The Importance of a Proactive Approach

With so many other problems confronting businesses today, employee sabotage may seem to be a rather insignificant problem. And in many cases sabotage behaviors may in fact be just that. In other cases, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The net effect of damaged reputation, compromised customer and employee safety, needless expenditure to replace damaged facilities, computer hardware or software, and the psychological effects on employees can be surprisingly great. Moreover, regardless of whether a particular sabotage behavior is of itself serious or not, the fact is that it took place. Someone you have trusted to contribute to the well-being of the company has taken advantage of that trust, and worked against the company's best interests. And you may be helping to make that possible. You may be careless in your selection process, or tolerate an atmosphere where unethical behavior is acceptable. You may be creating situations where employees feel taken advantage of, and where their best interests are perceived as incompatible with those of the company. You may be providing ample temptation and opportunity with inadequate security planning. Perhaps worst of all, if sabotage does occur and the reputation and future of the firm is on the line, you may be unprepared to deal with the situation. In short, treating employee sabotage as a random event over which there is no control, ignores what can be done and almost assures that nothing will be done to prevent it.

1 Interviews were conducted with persons whose names were mentioned in published accounts, authors of articles on sabotage in the trade press, security firm officers who were willing to speak off the record, and managers whose names were provided by earlier contacts.

2 There is a distinction between sabotage as defined here and the ever-increasing incidence of workplace homicides. While these homicides seem to share many reasons in common with sabotage, they represent far more irrational behavior and the individuals who commit them appear to have a compromised ability to reason (see for example, Solomon et al., 1993). Consequently, workplace murder will not be classified as employee sabotage for the purposes of this presentation. Likewise, actions due to a temporary loss of restraint will not be considered sabotage. These actions are not premeditated, nor are their likely consequences considered. They are typically physical in nature and more likely to represent an attempt to destroy a source of acute frustration. An example would be the employee who emptied a full revolver into his computer when after repeated tries, over a number of days, he could not get a program to run properly.


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TABLE 1: Motivations For Employee Sabotage

To make a statement or send a message To prevent or encourage corporate change To establish personal worth To gain a competitive advantage over co-workers To gain revenge against management or co-workers To have an impact in a large and faceless bureaucracy To satisfy a need to destroy To seek thrills To avoid responsibility for failure To avoid work For personal gain To vent personal anger created by nonwork problems and frustrations

Michael D. Crino Professor of Management Clemson University
COPYRIGHT 1994 Pittsburg State University - Department of Economics
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Crino, Michael D.
Publication:Journal of Managerial Issues
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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