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Referred to as the ‘dark knight’ of the office, though likely more Gareth Keenan than Bruce Wayne, the office vigilante takes pride in holding those within the company accountable for their actions, whether it’s their place to do so or not. They eagerly keep an eye out for any hint of wrong-doing, and do all they can to ensure punishment is handed out. On paper, ensuring that everyone within the office is adhering to the same set of rules and upholding some measure of decent morals should be considered a good thing, but it may in fact be having a detrimental effect in many workplaces.

A new study recently published by  Katy DeCelles of the University of Toronto and Karl Aquino of the University of British Columbia, titled ‘ Vigilantes at Work: Examining the Frequency of Dark Knight Employees’, sought to explore the organisational and individual characteristics associated with more frequent workplace vigilantism, as well as the on-going effects of such activity in an office environment.

For the purposes of the study, the researchers defined a workplace vigilante as “someone who, without any formal authority to do so, regularly brings claims to the attention of authorities, colleagues, or the general public that one or more persons in their organization has committed a moral violation, a breach of company policy, or an unjust act, and makes an effort to punish that person or persons directly or indirectly.”

The researchers found that of 2,000 US workers surveyed, 57.9% had experience with at least one workplace vigilante, whilst 18% currently work with such an individual. On average, respondents were able to recall four such vigilantes over the course of their working career, leaving the team with 1,200 accounts of workplace vigilantes from which to draw their data.

To nobody’s surprise, the study revealed that such employees are often regarded by their colleagues with some measure of contempt, with many workers, even those who are partaking in nothing untoward, feeling ‘on guard’ in their company, leading to a drop in collaboration and productivity in the office.

While the study did state that “workplace vigilantes, should they exist, might be a positive force in organizations because they take on the role of punishing wrongdoers and reforming corrupt organizational practices when authorities fail to do so”, the influx of petty reports from these individuals may in fact have a largely detrimental effect.

“Workplace vigilantes often reported people for minor offences, such as being two minutes late, or leaving food in the office fridge too long,” the researchers write. “Our paper is the first to demonstrate that workplace vigilantes are indeed among us, in virtually every industry.”

Respondents described some serious consequences of workplace vigilantes, including their targets being reprimanded, sometimes being fired from their jobs or quitting, and also the vigilante themselves being terminated. When major violations take place, such action may be necessary, but if such a situation is created by nothing more than an excess of petty and largely inconsequential issues, the business will only suffer as a result of vigilante action.

Three of those who took part in the study surprisingly described themselves as workplace vigilantes, with one declaring, “I am a workplace vigilante. If a workplace is abusing me or its workers I’ll say something.”

However, despite the opinion of those partaking in vigilantism that they are performing some kind of public service, ensuring that rules are followed and contributing to a positive environment in the long run, those involved in the paper seem to disagree. DeCelles and Aquino ultimately conclude that dark knight employees appear to be “a common and potentially costly phenomenon for organisations.”


Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.
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