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Guerrilla Warfare

Disgruntled workers use sabotage to send their bosses a message.


Although employers are loath to admit it, workplace sabotage is a common and costly thorn in the side of American business.

Sabotage can manifest itself subtly or disguise itself as ineptitude, as in the case of an auto assembly line worker who deliberately leaves out a bolt, resulting in a work stoppage down the line.

Ray O'Hara, a workplace violence expert with Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations, said a necessary element of sabotage is intent. "But how do you prove intent unless it's blatant to the eye? If someone leaves a hose on all night long so that a warehouse floor is flooded, and $10,000 in products is damaged, how do you determine it was intentional unless some guy says, 'Yeah, I left that hose on because I hate the place.' "

Tinkering and tomfoolery can give way to outright warfare. When Verizon Communications employees went on strike in New York last year, police logged more than 20 suspected acts of sabotage. Two striking workers were critically burned when one of them cut into a power line he mistook for a phone line.

While hard numbers on the rate of sabotage don't exist, new studies on the sabotaging of company computer networks are revealing. A 1999 report by the San Francisco-based Computer Security Institute said 61 organizations reported a total of $21 million in losses from known incidents of internal data and network sabotage in 1998. The combined total for the previous four years of the study was $10 million.


Robert Giacalone's introduction to workplace sabotage began over drinks at a pub with a colleague one day in the early 1980s.

"He was telling me stories he'd heard from clients," said Giacalone, who is the Surtman distinguished professor of business ethics at the University of North Carolina. "I was just shocked. Some of it was very funny and some of it was very scary. All of it I saw as acts of aggression."

Giacalone, a trained psychologist and an expert on organizational behavior, has become a scholar of workplace sabotage, which he broadly defines as "an attempt, usually by employees, to damage the company."

His work has included consulting with corporations beset by sabotage and with government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. His research has led him to conclude that companies with chronic problems almost always invite trouble by either failing to notice or blatantly ignoring discontent among employees.

"One manufacturer I worked with had such a problem that it was like being under attack by a group of terrorists," Giacalone said. "But they could never catch the people responsible because nobody would talk. The other employees all hated the company and thought it was great."

The acts of sabotage included recalibrating machines to improperly cut metal, hunting rats with air-powered metal arrows fashioned from company materials, injecting industrial glue into the locks of executive doors and exploding a 50-gallon drum of toxic material, which forced an evacuation of the facility.

"That was so the group involved could get the first day of deer-hunting season off," said Giacalone, who interviewed factory workers on condition of anonymity. From there, the attacks began targeting a single manager.

"The guy's office chair was booby-trapped so that when he sat down it jettisoned him into the air," Giacalone said. "Amazingly, he only broke an arm."

Next, the manager's phone receiver was painted with a powerful blue dye that stained his face when he answered a call. The dye had to be removed with an acid chemical peel. Finally, the manager was walking on a lower-level tier one day when a 30-foot steel beam was dropped from above, missing him by a yard.

"That's attempted murder," Giacalone said. "The question is, how do you go from simply annoying and even costly acts of sabotage to that. The answer is that the manager in question was a vicious, mean-spirited person who was cruel and had no respect for people."

The company had received many complaints about the manager but refused to do anything about his behavior, Giacalone said. As the employees grew increasingly frustrated, acts of low-level sabotage increased.

When these signals were ignored, the sabotage grew more violent. "A message was being sent," Giacalone said. "A very strong message."


The word "sabotage," from the Flemish, literally means to jam machinery by throwing in a wooden shoe. It was a form of protest against working conditions, a way to make employers stop and listen.

When it comes to technology-dependent industries, the wooden shoe has been supplanted by electronic wrenches and the machines being jammed and destroyed are vast corporate networks.

Some high-profile sabotage cases in recent years illustrate how much damage one disgruntled employee can do.

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