Home | Site Map | Archives | Print Edition | Discussions | Advertise | Feedback | Help
Sunday, February 4, 2001
Home Edition
Section: Work Place
Page: W-1

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.

In May, a federal jury convicted a former Omega Engineering Corp. network manager of sabotaging the network he helped create by planting a software time bomb, which he detonated after being fired. The bomb paralyzed Omega, a manufacturer of high-tech measurement and instrumentation devices used by the U.S. Navy and NASA. The company's damages exceeded $10 million.

In 1997 George Parente, a former Forbes Inc. computer technician, pleaded guilty to violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for deliberately causing five of the publishing company's eight network servers to crash after his termination from a temporary position. All of the information on the affected servers was erased and no data could be restored. The sabotage forced Forbes to shut down its New York operations for two days and resulted in more than $100,000 in losses.

Internal saboteurs can do tremendous damage to an organization's computer systems and business operations, said Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute and author of "The ePolicy Handbook" (Amacom, 2000).

"Lockheed Martin's system crashed for six hours one day after an employee sent 60,000 co-workers a personal e-mail with a request for an electronic receipt," Flynn said. "It was a personal message related to a national prayer day. As a result of this one e-mail, the company lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. A Microsoft rescue squad had to be flown in to repair the damage. The employee responsible was fired for sabotage."

Flynn said a company's best defense is written e-mail and Internet policies that clearly state what employees are allowed to do with the company system. She also recommends using filtering software, ongoing employee education and diligent monitoring.

"This protects the employer legally and lets employees know what violations they can expect to be terminated for," she said. "It gives notice that just because a computer is sitting on your desk, that doesn't make it your personal property."

Attorney Arthur Silbergeld, a Los Angeles-based partner with the firm Proskauer Rose and chairman of the Labor and Employment Law Section of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., said maintaining employee hotlines or having ethical compliance officers who operate independently from the organization are also deterrents.

"Employees need someplace to take their concerns and problems," Silbergeld said. "While taking these steps won't eliminate sabotage, it will minimize it."

Computer systems aren't the only targets of sabotage. Products are also fair game. Sometimes the goal is simply to humiliate a corporation.

In 1999, a red-faced Walt Disney Co. was compelled to recall 3.4 million video releases of its classic animated children's film "The Rescuers" when a photograph of a nude female torso was discovered imbedded in two frames.

When reporters asked a Disney spokeswoman if the company knew who had tampered with the film, she would only say that it was "an internal matter."

RTMark, an Internet-based company just named one of Yahoo Internet Life's 100 Top Sites for 2000, is the merry prankster of corporate sabotage.

Staffed by volunteers, RTMark is funded by mostly anonymous investors who put money in "mutual funds," which are then used to finance various acts of sabotage against corporations to punish them for their greed.

The group's most celebrated case was the 1993 Barbie Liberation Organization caper, in which RTMark operatives switched the voice boxes on 300 Barbie and G.I Joe dolls and then restocked them on toy shelves across America.

"We are mainly interested in what we call 'tactical embarrassment,"' said New Yorker Duane Dibbley, 32, a bond ratings software programmer and RTMark volunteer. "Our goal is to harm the corporate person, which is not a living person. We want to tarnish their image."

While many cases involve an employee or former employee with a personal gripe, sabotage can spread like winter flu through an organization where the work force in general feels at odds with the boss or corporation.

"It is a normal, everyday event in any workplace where employees are discontented and don't feel like they have recourse to address problems," said Stanley Aronowitz, professor of sociology at the University of New York and director for the Center for the Study of Culture, Technology and Work. "Sabotage is a cry for voice. The problem is employers don't want to give employees a voice because it means giving up power, and the American managerial process is to give up anything but power. In this country, management has a way of thinking that if the pay is good, you should go home and shut up."

Rich Hagberg, chief executive of the Hagberg Consulting Group, a Silicon Valley-based firm that researches and consults on corporate culture, said his data confirm that employee sabotage finds fertile ground in companies "where management behaves in a way that cuts or disrupts its bond with employees."

"In the '80s and '90s, all the emphasis was placed on increasing shareholder values while employees were treated like expendable commodities," Hagberg said. "That practice has greatly damaged the relationship between employers and employees. Focusing exclusively on customers and shareholders while sacrificing workers invites sabotage, which is really an indirect expression of frustration."

Hagberg's data also suggest that employee alienation is increasing. "We are seeing more antisocial behavior and acting out," he said. "At the same time, the war for talent is getting worse. What that tells me is employers better figure out how to treat their people better if they want to attract the best talent and keep it."

The bond between employers and employees is further strained by corporations that insist on a materialist model of doing business in a postmaterialist world, Giacalone said.

"The old model said you are what you earn," Giacalone said. "But what people are saying is, 'I want a life.' All this stuff you see about downshifters giving up $200,000 jobs to take $50,000 is an indication of what's going on."

Giacalone recalls one company that was having a tough time retaining its tech people in a tight labor market. Its solution was to exceed competitive wages by 10%.

"The HR person figured this would solve the problem, but people left anyway," Giacalone said. "The scary part was they left for lower paying jobs. The HR woman said it didn't make any sense, but it does. Money is no longer a primary motivation factor."

What motivates people to stay is a work environment where they are respected, Giacalone said.

"People don't want to feel like they're working for feudal lords," he said. "They are beginning to disrespect what corporations stand for and what corporations do, largely because they feel that corporations have disrespected them. Sabotage is an outgrowth of this disrespect."

GRAPHIC-DRAWING: (no caption), PETER BENNETT / For The Times
Descriptors: Employees, Employers, Workplace, Behavior, Employee Misconduct, Sabotage


Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times. May not be reproduced or retransmitted without permission.

To make a permissions request, please visit http://www.lats.com/rights/ for information and an easy request form.

If you have a question about your account, check here or message membersupport@qpass.com. If you have other questions, check Help.

The Los Angeles Times archives are stored on a SAVE (tm) newspaper library system from MediaStream, Inc., a Knight-Ridder Inc. company.