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When Is Employee Retaliation Acceptable at Work? Evidence from Quasi-Experiments




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       The authors’ affiliations are, respectively, Department of Economics, UC Santa Barbara. 2127 North Hall, Santa Barbara, CA 93106, (805) 893 2412, E-mail:; Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley, 2220 Piedmont Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94720, (510) 642 1697, E-mail: The Fairness Study Team at UC Berkeley collected the data and added many important ideas. We had a number of discussions with friends and acquaintances about their own misbehavior at work. We specifically thank Miriam Dornstein, Vicki Elliot, Seth Fragomen, Nicole Gerardi, Christopher Kutz, Phil Tetlock, and seminar participants at UCLA for fruitful discussions. In mentioning them here, we in no way mean to implicate them in specific acts of sabotage. Data and programs are available on request.


When is employee retaliation acceptable in the workplace? We use a quasi-experimental design to study the acceptability of several forms of retaliatory behavior at work, gathering data in this untested area. Consistent with hypotheses from theories of fairness, we find that employee retaliation in the workplace is perceived to be more acceptable if it is an act of omission instead of an act of commission. We do not find that a more damaging retaliatory act is significantly less acceptable than a less damaging one, suggesting a qualitative rather than a quantitative relationship. We also find individual differences: Respondents who are older, female, politically conservative, and managers typically show less tolerance for retaliation, while union members are a bit more accepting than average.