Sticking It to the Man

Forget Joe the Plumber. America has a new working-class hero: Steven Slater. The 39-year-old JetBlue flight attendant got into a tiff with a disobedient passenger who, after refusing to sit down as the plane taxied, accidentally hit Slater in the head with a bag. Slater took to the plane's intercom system.

"To the passenger who just called me a motherfucker: fuck you. I've been in this business 28 years and I've had it," Slater said before grabbing some beer from the plane's galley and making his getaway via the inflatable emergency chute. (Slater perhaps misspoke -- he has been a flight attendant for 20 years.) Police later arrested Slater at his home in Queens and charged him with criminal mischief, reckless endangerment, and trespassing.

Within hours of the incident, supporters erected a Facebook page soliciting funds for his legal defense. The page, which as of Friday had 195,000 fans, reads like a human-resources complaint file. "On behalf of the millions of unsung, often abused and frequently harassed people in service industries, I salute you," wrote one commenter. "I've dreamed of doing something like this for years!" exclaimed another. Almost instantaneously, Slater -- who by all accounts had been a stand-up employee until the incident on Monday -- became, as the New York Daily News put it, "the toast of the online community."

It would be easy to see the episode as nothing more than an amusing breach of decorum, but the public celebration of Slater as a working-class hero reveals what polling data readily show: A record number of Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs, and many are ready to stick it to the man. And the fault may lie with management. Researchers who study how people perceive fairness in the workplace say that when employees have a breakdown, it's frequently the boss or the way the organization handles the conflict that is at fault.

"Often we tend to blame the person who explodes, but more and more our research has shown that businesses create environments where people feel this is the only way they can strike back," says Stephen Gilliland, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Arizona.

Workplaces in which employees have little say in the decision-making processes, where rules are applied inconsistently, and where there is lack of sincerity and respect among colleagues tend to foster revenge-seeking behavior. But most important, many of these offices have no system in place to address employee grievances. This leads to a situation where, Gilliland explains, people explode like kernels of popcorn in hot oil.

"And it's not just the bad kernels that pop; it's everybody," he says. "Once the situation becomes bad enough -- and there's nowhere to turn for release -- normal people are driven to do abnormal things."

This is particularly true in the service sector, where rude customers serve as an additional stressor to an increasingly underpaid workforce. The median wage for the bottom 90 percent of the workforce has essentially remained flat since 1973 and income inequality is at its highest level since the 1920s. Economists largely attribute this to the shift to a service-based economy; while the transition has benefited highly skilled workers, most of the job growth in the last 20 years has been in lower-paying retail and food-service industries. If these structural forces aren't enough to send you over the edge, having a workplace where you don't feel respected or heard just might.

But seeking revenge at work is common across the economy. While it is difficult to pin down exact statistics, researchers estimate that anywhere between 75 percent and 90 percent of workers do something to get back at their bosses, costing companies up to $200 billion a year. Disgruntled employees seek revenge by procrastinating, failing to complete assigned tasks, or in some cases, stealing. Who hasn't pilfered office stamps and written it off as compensation for work-related indignities?

And recent studies show that even when borne of intemperate anger, revenge can indeed be sweet: Robert Bies, a professor at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business, and Thomas Tripp, a professor at Washington State University, have found that taking revenge can help restore self-esteem in an abusive workplace and act as a deterrent to abuse by managers. Most important, it can also prompt companies to fix inadequate or inconsistent policies for dealing with employee complaints, which is why Slater's outburst says as much about the corporate culture at JetBlue as it does about him.

"[The incident] is obviously a symptom of something underlying," Bies says. "Jet Blue should take the incident seriously and do something to improve working conditions."

Judging from public support for Slater, many other companies should do the same -- and not just for their employees' good.

"When you don't treat employees fairly, they engage in unethical behavior. When you treat them fairly, then you get employees willing to go out of the way to make the company successful," Gilliland says.

Numerous studies conducted since the academic field of organizational justice took off in the early 1990s bear out that corporations that treat their workers fairly have more positive office cultures and outperform their competitors. Companies that adequately compensate and promote their employees and make them part of decisions that affect them -- even if the outcome is perceived as unfavorable -- are more likely to identify with the goals of the organization, work harder, and stay longer. And when things go wrong, companies need policies to resolve conflict.

The most important person is often the worker's direct manager. In January, the Prospect reported on managers who flouted profit-driven corporate policies in order to accommodate their workers' needs and compensate them better. Not surprisingly, the workers in turn worked harder, improving the companies' overall performance.

"The surprising thing to me after 20 years of research is how often I encounter employers working for organizations that just don't get it," Gilliland adds.

For workers who feel kicked around, Gilliland suggests seeking co-workers for support the bosses are unable to give. But if they're part of the problem, you're out of luck.

"Fundamentally, you can't make a boss change; you can't make a company more fair," he says. "You have to find a place that is."

Given that there are five Americans for every job available, this is a small comfort.

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