Kim Carney / msnbc.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/15/2008 7:52:05 PM ET 2008-09-15T23:52:05

Marie Lupe Cooley thought her job at a Jacksonville, Fla., architectural firm was in jeopardy after she saw a help-wanted ad in the local newspaper that appeared to be seeking candidates for her position.

She decided that if she was being fired, she’d exact her revenge, and came into the office on a Sunday and erased years of important data on her employer’s computer system.

Cooley’s story received local and national media attention earlier this year, and her act of sabotage is a good lesson for disgruntled workers everywhere. Her impulsive decision landed her in jail.

There are a number of workers out there like Cooley who may feel slighted by their employers. During tough economic times, no one’s job is safe.

But disgruntled employees, take heed: If you deliberately sabotage your employer’s computer system or do something that could undermine a firm’s business, you could end up in jail or ruin your chances of ever being employed again.

Take, for example, the Boeing worker at a suburban Philadelphia plant who in May cut electrical wires on a $24 million Chinook military helicopter because he said he was upset about an impending job transfer. The vandalism caused more than $110,000 in damage, according to federal prosecutors, and the former employee now faces 10 months in prison or more.

As for Cooley, she was ultimately sentenced to five years of probation and agreed to pay restitution to her former employer.

“She felt she was wronged,” says a source close to Cooley’s case. (Cooley could not be reached for comment.)

Another disturbing fact: A survey by security firm Cyber-Ark that found 88 percent of information technology workers would take sensitive data with them or abscond with company passwords if they were fired.

People, this is illegal! This goes way beyond stealing Post-it notes.

Perceived injustice in the workplace
Some corporate security experts point to an uptick in such cases in the last year or so.

“It’s a pretty common problem right now and it’s only getting worse,” says Andrew Serwin, chair of the privacy, security and information management practice for law firm Foley & Lardner.

Serwin, author of "Information Security and Privacy: A Practical Guide to Federal, State and International Law," thinks the reason behind the rise in corporate sabotage is that so much information is stored electronically. “Now you can come in with a thumb-drive or your iPod and download a ton of information,” he says.

“In a lot of these cases of sabotage and aggression at work, it’s a person trying to restore justice to a situation,” says Paul Harvey, assistant professor of management at the University of New Hampshire. Some workers who are fired or not given a raise may feel it’s an injustice that can only be remedied via payback.

And today’s tough economic environment, which can lead to disgruntled workers, doesn’t help. “With the possibility of downsizing, and the number of people fired or laid off, the potential goes up,” he says.

There seems to be a lot of injustice in the workplace these days. Workers are being laid off by the thousands while the top brass at those same firms get big bonuses and raises. Earlier this year, a congressional committee even felt the need to scrutinize the big pay packages given to the CEOs in the mortgage sector, which has seen thousands of jobs slashed.

“People see that and think: ‘They could have paid my measly salary,” says Harvey.

Most of the employees who decide to carry out sabotage do it before they actually get escorted out of the building, says Dawn Cappelli, senior member of the technical staff at Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute’s CERT program, where her team looks at cybercrime committed by current or former employees or contractors.

“We had one case in a telecommunications company where an employee planted a logic bomb and let it sit there for six months until he found another job,” she explains. When the logic bomb — also known as a time bomb, software code written to do something malicious to a computer system — went off, it disrupted service for the company’s customers and wreaked havoc until the IT folks figured out what it was.

It’s hard to know exactly how many sabotage cases like this have occurred, Cappelli says, because most companies, about 74 percent, never report such breaches. It's bad for public relations. Investors and customers may look at the breach by an insider as a sign of lax security.

That reluctance to report the sabotage to law enforcement means that many of these cases don’t end up in court or jail time for those workers who perpetrate the sabotage, experts say.

But, as the electronic age has made it easier for workers to sabotage an employer’s business, it’s also made it easier for prospective employers to check you out.

So the last thing you need is to be known in the industry as a worker who took revenge on his or her managers, says Barbara Kate Repa, author of “Your Rights In The Workplace.” You risk your own work reputation. The work world is a small world, and that kind of bad karma is going to follow you around and muddy your tracks for good.”

Talk to your manager
If you suspect layoffs maybe coming or were not paid a bonus you were expecting, Repa suggests sitting down with your manager to discuss the matter, rather than stewing in anger.

And do it without whining, she adds. Come to the table with some suggestions of how you can make things better, for your department and yourself.

From the manager’s perspective, it’s a good idea to tell workers exactly why certain actions are being taken so they aren't left wondering “Why me?” That just gives employees “room to spin conspiracy theories,” adds Harvey. If they know it was just part of a bigger cost-cutting measure, they’re not as likely not to take it personally.

We all get angry and frustrated. “But some people’s snapping point is lower than others. How a person handles things varies,” Harvey explains.

In many cases of sabotage, Cappelli says, the employees feel remorseful in the end. “Everyone we talked to said, ‘If I had to do it again I never would have done this.’ ”

But, she adds, some workers may be predisposed to this type of behavior. They tend to have one or two common personality characteristics: They can’t take criticism, and they typically don’t get along well with colleagues at work. “Something happens that sets them off; pay problems, layoffs, etc.,” she adds.

There’s nothing wrong with a little revenge daydream, says Harvey. “It’s when you get to the point where you’re planning out the steps that you’re going to take to get that revenge that you probably reached the point where things are getting out of control.”

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