Workplace Vigilante Syndrome
  • Managing people

Workplace Vigilante Syndrome

The danger of letting Dark Knights police the organization’s culture


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Moral values and ethics are key components of the culture of any progressive organization, particularly where top down ‘command and control’ has been replaced by devolved more democratic forms of leadership. However, in maintaining an ethical culture, a problem can arise when self-appointed enforcers of the moral code over-step the mark.

These Dark Knights of the workplace, always on the look-out for late-starters, long-lunchers, lazy-dishwashers and the less than perfect, are a common phenomenon and a potentially costly one for organizations. But it is a fine line, Dark Knights should be discouraged from reporting colleagues’ minor misdemeanours, but genuine ‘whistle-blowers’ who inform on a person or part of the organization which appears to be engaging in an unlawful or immoral activity, need to be protected.

A recent research paper, from by Professor Karl Aquino at UBC Sauder School of Business and Katy DeCelles of the University of Toronto, is the first to demonstrate evidence that workplace vigilantes are indeed among us – in virtually every industry. The researchers found that 57.9% of the American workers surveyed had experience with at least one workplace vigilante, with 18% currently working with a workplace vigilante, and 42% having worked with one or more in the course of their career.  

The researchers identify what they describe as ‘workplace vigilante syndrome’ – a condition where someone who, without any formal authority to do so, regularly brings claims to the attention of senior leaders, colleagues, or external stakeholders that people in their organization have committed moral violations, a minor breaches of company policy, or unjust acts, and makes an effort to punish the people directly or indirectly. Unlike the genuine whistle-blower, the vigilantist behaviour of the Dark Knight is regular and continual.

In some cases, workplace vigilantes may arguably be a positive force because they take on the role of punishing wrongdoers and reforming corrupt organizational practices when authorities fail to do so. However, there is no guarantee that a vigilante’s behaviour is both justifiable and appropriate given their lack of formal authority for dispensing punishment. Vigilantes can also create a climate of fear and distrust in an organization, compromising employees’ abilities to form mutually beneficial and supportive relationships at work, not to mention imposing legal and reputational liabilities for organizations if their actions are imprudent or excessive.

Vigilantes were reported more commonly in large organizations and in unionized workforces and were more prevalent in certain industry sectors. Interestingly, workplace vigilantes appear more common in organizations with ethics hotlines or other grievance procedures (34% versus 47.8%). Does this mean that organizations with formal procedures for grassing on colleagues have the most effective disciplinary systems? Or on the other hand, do these channels for formal complaint merely prime people to construe more activities as being wrong thereby increasing the likelihood that people will engage in vigilante activity?

Generally, Dark Knights in the workplace are seen as little more than a nuisance. They cause annoyance, stress, and bad vibes and are avoided by work colleagues as much as possible. This is how one respondent described how vigilante behaviour affected them: “I worked with a 'workplace vigilante' who was continually watching and on patrol for anyone who didn't abide 100% by any rules or regulations of the company that they deemed should be strictly followed at all costs.…It was very frustrating and difficult to work around this person as you always had to be 'on guard' or there might be a fear you would be complained against or an issue might be addressed with someone higher up in the company.”

However, many people who took part in the research survey reported serious fallout from self-appointed enforcers leading to resignations and organizational disruption. Although this research is only exploratory at this stage, and further research needs to be conducted, the message for business leaders, outside of Gotham City, appears to be that Dark Knights mitigate against collaborative corporate cultures and should be monitored and discouraged.

Read the full research paper: Vigilantes at Work: Examining the Frequency of Dark Knight Employees

Canada’s UBC Sauder Executive Education is located in the heart of Vancouver’s business district, known for its strong Pacific Rim connections, vibrant multiculturalism and spectacular natural environment surrounded by ocean and mountains.

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