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How to take safe but satisfying revenge on the boss

Financial Times

By Lucy Kellaway

Published: April 20 2009 03:00 | Last updated: April 20 2009 03:00

In the UK, we do it with a brick thrown through a boss’s window. In France, they do it with a key that locks a boss into his office. And in the US, they do it by lampooning their bosses on Twitter.

Workers of the world are uniting, not so much to lose their chains but to get back at their bosses. Anti-boss rage is more in vogue than it has ever been in my lifetime and I find I’m watching the petulant display with alternate surges of glee and discomfort. The rage itself seems fair enough; the problem is the choice of outlets, some of which are more appealing than others.

The British way of chucking bricks through windows is the least attractive of the lot. Ugly, thuggish and illegal, it is also counter-productive. Sir Fred Goodwin, former chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, was one of the most reviled men in the country until some idiot lobbed a brick though the sitting room window of his Edinburgh home , thus making the disgraced banker almost popular again.

The French way of venting rage through the new “bossnapping” craze – where workers keep their bosses under lock and key for a few hours – is marginally preferable. It has the superficial charm of the playground and chimes with the French love of protest though, otherwise, has little to recommend it.

I remember the thrill I felt as a teenager when a classmate locked the gym teacher in the cupboard where the hockey sticks were kept. This teacher was not my cup of tea and so the sound of the key turning on her gave me a jolt of pleasure. However, the thrill was swiftly replaced by dread and anxiety: I didn’t like the thought of her in the dark in that smelly cupboard. Locking someone up – even when they are about to shout at you for failing to vault over the horse – didn’t feel right to my 13-year-old self and still doesn’t now.

By contrast, the American way of venting anger on the internet has everything to recommend it. It is peaceable, legal, funny and makes the punishment fit the crime.

The latest victim of this kind of attack is John V. Soden III, a managing director at Thomas Weisel Partners, a San Francisco investment bank.

On the Gawker website there is an e-mail apparently sent by Soden on Good Friday instructing staff to come to work. “Unless you are an orthodox something, please get into the office. Join Wells Fargo and become a teller if you want to take bank holidays,” it reportedly said.

This charmless message prompted an angry underling to set up a fake Twitter account in Soden’s name with tweets that say “I love my life” and “Analyst slacking again. Headed to mosque to get him back to work. Traffic sucks.”

Satire as a means of revenge is one of the deadliest there is – and long pre-dates the internet. In 1992, I was involved in the toppling of an overbearing boss and, even though my role was accidental, I’ve been dining out on it ever since. I had gone to interview Bob Horton, the then head of BP, who solemnly told me how important he was – how busy and how powerful. My article (which repeated what he had said but was otherwise quite bland) was seized on by an in-house satirist who wrote a spoof suggesting that Horton was friendly with Pol Pot and his office furniture was modelled on Napoleon’s throne. This was widely circulated and much giggled over and, within a few weeks, Horton was ousted in a boardroom coup.

Thanks to the internet, one no longer needs the satirical element to do the damage. The victim’s own words can be more than enough – as Gordon Brown’s adviser, Damian McBride, found last week when his low down e-mail attempting to smear opposition leaders was leaked to a political website. Not only his party but the whole country then turned on him.

There is nothing more enjoyable than seeing bosses fall not on their own swords but on their own words. David Greer, a Shell executive, gave a lot of pleasure to a lot of people with his leaked e-mail that ordered his underlings to “lead me, follow me or get out of my way”. Just as the angry mob used to relish throwing squashed vegetables at people in the stocks, the angry workers read leaked e-mails such as this and enjoy chucking their own furious comments into cyberspace.

Most bosses are too sensible to send intemperate e-mails that would get them into trouble of this sort and most workers are too sensible for bricks or keys, meaning that other ways need to be found to vent anger. The internet is full of advice here.

My favourite suggestion is to raise the desk of the boss just a tiny bit every day and lower his chair – to give him the feeling that he is shrinking. Another tip is to insert an embarrassing picture into the middle of his PowerPoint slides on the Korean economy. A third is to unplug the keyboard from the back of the computer, so that he will have to summon the help desk and then look a fool when they plug it back in for him. These suggestions strike me as the equivalent of putting a sticker on the teacher’s back saying Kick Me. I thought such things were hilarious when I was 13 but, sadly, I’m not sure if I have the heart for them now.

There is another way of extracting revenge that is safer and more honourable but it takes longer. And that is to do nothing at all.

Almost everyone gets their comeuppance in the end. Every bad boss – and even quite a few good ones – will trip up of their own accord if one just waits long enough.

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