Fast Track: Sabotage - it's all the rage

Hacking, fraud - 'industrial crime' by disgruntled staff is on the rise.
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The Independent Culture
THE TIME comes when you realise just how much you've given your employer. That you've cancelled your weekend to meet that Monday deadline more than once in a while, and you regularly work late in the office. You've been diligent and loyal, and you feel confident that payback time is just round the corner.

Imagine your frustration, then, when the promotion you're hoping for goes to someone else. Do you take it on the chin, or do you get your own back by throwing a metaphorical spanner in the works? According to new research, a growing number is opting for the latter.

"Industrial sabotage" is on the increase, concludes a study published by the American Society of Industrial Security. In fact, American corporations are losing millions of dollars each year due to disgruntled employees taking revenge on their employers.

Dubbed "work rage" by some, the retaliation covers a broad range of tactics from carving malicious graffiti into the door of the office loo to planting computer "bombs" that can cripple an employer's entire IT network. It is now the biggest security worry for nine out of ten US bosses. And although far less research has been carried out in the UK, anecdotal evidence confirms we're catching up fast.

Organisational psychologists talk of a dramatic shift in the nature of the once mutually respectful relationship between employer and employee. Once there was an unwritten expectation that an employee provided loyalty and service for a set working week in exchange for a salary and job security. Recession, however, led to growing pressure on employers to keep costs in check, resulting in dwindling job security, increasing short-term contracts and a move towards more autocratic management styles.

It is against this backdrop that an increasing number of employees are growing frustrated. To add insult to injury, there are more ways for them to get back at their employers than ever before - and the potential damage they can cause can be extremely significant - says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at UMIST.

"Before, it simply came down to tampering with a bit of machinery. Now, one individual person can create enormous amounts of damage for an organisation by removing material from a computer system or infecting documents with a virus. It's even possible to target an attack on one particular person - perhaps to put them in a bad light."

Three particular types of workplace circumstances are likely to push irritable employees to hit back, Professor Cooper believes. "Some may be driven by insecurity. Perhaps they don't feel that enough is going on within their department - so they go and sabotage the system in order to generate more work for themselves," he says.

Alternatively, an employee might seek. to tamper with his or her employer's systems in a misplaced attempt to take an ethical stance on their employer's activities or methods of operation. In the public sector, David Shayler is the classic example of a displeased employee fighting back. In a commercial setting, whistle-blowing might involve leaking commercially-sensitive materials to the press or worse, a company's competitors.

Peter, a 27-year-old computer programmer, admits that promotion of a less experienced colleague above him tempted him to act less than professionally. "I tampered with the system and corrupted some files, and then made a point of being on hand to sort it all out," he says. "I felt at the time it made me look good, but now I feel quite stupid. I was lucky no one caught me - and that I could sort things out before it was too late."

Not everyone, however, is so reticent. One displeased junior employee working for a large medical insurance company dumped a host of medical records, stole the back-up and then tried to blackmail the insurer for their return.

Fraud - which covers a wide range of white-collar crime from malicious damage to theft - is also on the increase. Three out of four UK companies have suffered it in some form in the past five years, according to a survey published earlier this year. And according to a new report by the University of Nottingham Business School, middle managers are particularly likely to defraud as they have in-depth knowledge of how their firms work and how to cover their tracks. Official figures showing pounds 5bn of serious fraud every year in the UK is the tip of the iceberg, claims the report.

Small wonder, then, that for younger people entering the workforce, the controls and checks used by a growing number of recruiters have never been greater. "Industrial sabotage" is best countered by installing safeguards - such as passwords, restricted access and back-up systems - in the workplace, Mr Beadle believes. Some companies have even introduced surveillance systems to keep an eye on staff. Other measures include more rigorous employee vetting.

"While employee screening can never give an employer a 100 per cent guarantee of safety, it can highlight applicants who could pose a potential risk by revealing a series of short duration employment, or even evidence of tampering with files or systems before," he says.

The extent to which today's younger employees feel disgruntled and want to hit back at their employers as a result, remains to be seen. Conflicting research suggests that on the one hand, they are just as ambitious as their predecessors, but less likely to accept the status quo, while on the other, they are more in tune with the Nineties style of management.

"Today's graduate recruits prefer the Nineties employer's 'new deal'," believes Mr Conway. "They are young and open to new ideas and want to work more flexibly. Younger recruits respond well to performance-related rewards rather than rewards based simply on longevity of tenure - the old approach."

British employers may stand to lose less from an irritable workforce than their American cousins - for the time being. Even so, Mr Beadle says, a growing number are unwilling to take the risk.