Sabotage is not just for Beastie Boys fans
June 19, 2020 8:52 AM   Subscribe

We've talked about workplace sabotage before here on the blue, but back in 1992 somebody actually wrote a book about it.

As the introduction points out, quite a few of the examples in it cross at least an ethical line, and quite possibly a legal one too, and yet in almost every case people thought it was justified because of the way they were treated at work. Sometimes it's the need for a break, or boredom, or the only effective form of protest against unsafe conditions, and sometimes it's revenge. At least a couple of cases look like someone just being an asshole at work, and trying to claim a moral purpose for it.

Increased workplace scrutiny and automation has made a lot of these harder or impossible, but that in turn just creates more resentment and self-justification and possibly new opportunities.

Most of us have slacked off or half-assed a job at some point, but have you actually sabotaged a workplace, production line, project etc? If so, why? Was it justified?

And if you came here for the Beasties and are now feeling disappointed, we've got you covered.

Also, I found the link to the 1992 book in Twitter thread on the CIA manual, and can't remember who linked to it. Sorry.
posted by YoungStencil (25 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Hmmm. I really shouldn't download this on the work computer.
posted by suetanvil at 8:55 AM on June 19 [4 favorites]

It isn't "somebody," it's Martin Sprouse. (Although he is somebody, I grant you.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:01 AM on June 19

Ah, the book of Jim Halpert.
posted by Fizz at 9:12 AM on June 19

I bought this back when it came out. A good read but there are a few shockers (the waitress adding a “personal” touch to her meals is pretty rough.)
posted by porn in the woods at 9:18 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]

An older relative showed me a winter jacket she had purchased in/near Norway when I was about 12. "Look at this," she said and pushed down the translucent sleeve of the jacket, which was a thin liner -- tucked between the outer liner and the bulk of the jacket, there was a candy bar wrapper with a foreign name on it. "It must have been an accident," she said.

I hadn't thought of it until two decades later when I picked up the Sabotage book.
posted by user92371 at 9:35 AM on June 19 [4 favorites]

It's so hard to aim these things so that the only people inconvenienced/hurt are the ones who deserve it.
posted by allthinky at 9:38 AM on June 19 [6 favorites]

Most of us have slacked off or half-assed a job at some point, but have you actually sabotaged a workplace, production line, project etc? If so, why? Was it justified?

Nice try, agent.
posted by curious nu at 9:38 AM on June 19 [13 favorites]

Most of us have slacked off or half-assed a job at some point, but have you actually sabotaged a workplace, production line, project etc? If so, why? Was it justified?

I have not, but I had to go to Chrysler for a few weeks and watch parts come off the truck and be installed in the vans because union folks were sabotaging the parts because the company I worked for was a non-union shop.

The company would get dinged something like $10K a minute if the line had to stop due to its error, so having to stop the line and take a van off the line because a part wasn't available would be a pretty big problem after a few times.

Instead of sabotaging parts while I was there they'd just make a point of nitpicking the quality and I had to do on-the-spot touch-ups/repairs. I still haven't decided how I feel about the sabotage, but the company I worked for fired me about a year later because I made a stink when they started a mandatory drug testing program. They had a union vote a bit after that and it didn't pass, which is a shame.
posted by jzb at 9:48 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]

I am delighted that they put the job of "drug dealer guard" in the Entertainment category.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:57 AM on June 19 [4 favorites]

In the late 80s, I worked on the line in a Revlon packaging plant. I wasn't there long, but I've been grateful my whole life for the experience.

On one line, we were decanting perfume into sample bottles. Four stations: 1. put the glass bottles on the line, then they are filled automatically; 2. set caps on the bottles, which then go through an automatic cap-tightener; 3. put individual bottles into small boxes; 4, pack small boxes into cartons for shipping.

The glass bottles weren't round, but had a rounded rectangle cross-section. If you put them on the conveyer wrong, they might break in the filler, and then the line had to be shut down while the shattered glass was cleaned up. It was rare for a line to have this kind of get-out-of-jail-free card built in, and every now and then one of the long-timers at the factory would let a bottle get broken on purpose to give the whole line a break.

I was never quite sure what these breaks accomplished, as standing or sitting around idly for half an hour while the foreman reset the line wasn't much of an improvement, if any improvement at all, over sitting there putting bottle caps on. We were not allowed to leave the line, even to use the bathroom, which I think was intended to reduce sabotage by making it less rewarding. But in such a tightly regimented environment, it may well have felt empowering to be bored on your own terms for a little while.
posted by Orlop at 10:28 AM on June 19 [15 favorites]

As a youngster, I had several factory jobs. One was in a plant that made car parts. I ran a punch press. this is perhaps the most boring job on the planet. You feed a spool of metal into one end, hit the on button then watch the machine as it pushes out the part, whatever it happens to be. No adjustments, no packaging,
Smoked a lot of dope.
Threw things in the press to try to get it to jam.
One day I watched as a forklift driver rammed his forklift into some bay doors, on purpose. It was the most exciting day there.
I finally had to quit out of sheer boredom.
People sabotage their workplace?
For reasons?
Get out of town!
posted by evilDoug at 10:44 AM on June 19 [13 favorites]

My father was a Volkswagen mechanic for a dealer in SoCal during the mid 70's, and based on his stories, the people on the German assembly line workers were less about committing Sabotage!, and more about stuff like figuring out the best place to hide the wine bottles they emptied on the job was in the cars they were building.
posted by sideshow at 11:07 AM on June 19 [4 favorites]

Heh, now that I thought about this for a bit:

When I was 18 I worked at Home Depot as a Lot Attendant™, which meant gathering the carts and lots of fork lifting stuff into customer's trucks.

More often than you possibly believe, guys (it was always guys) would ask us to do something that, best case, would just result in totaling the truck, with the worst case being deaths and/or permanent injuries.

Well, 98% of the time, we would refuse to do whatever stupid thing they wanted us to do. However, if we were bored, we'd say "sure, just sign this liability form first".

That's because if we caused damage to a customer's car (which happened both times* I took part in this scheme), we had to be driven to a local clinic and get an immediate urine drug test, after which we had to wait for the results, which took the rest of the day, so we spent the rest of our shift in the break room watching the Clinton Impeachment hearings and drinking various soft drinks.

So, not really "sabotage" I guess, but definitely using Home Depot's drug policy and dumb ass customers to get out of actually having to work.

* One time I blew out the tires of someone's UHaul by lowering like twice the limit worth of bricks into it. The second I followed a customer's genius advice of using an empty pallet on a fork lift to push an already loaded pallet of bricks further into a customers truck. Of course the empty pallet practically vaporized and and ended up stabbing holes into the truck with the forklift blades. The UHaul guy practically started crying when he realized the stupidity of what he asked me to do, the truck with new holes in it guy practically passed out from laughing so hard, heh.
posted by sideshow at 11:26 AM on June 19 [13 favorites]

Some people say giant financial institutions can be cold and distant places for the lowly product line personnel, where you aren't given any notice by those higher up the ladder in the corporate hierarchy, but you might be surprised to find that isn't always the case at all!

Say, just for example, you were a lowly operations processor in the home mortgage arm of a major bank who was dealing with foreclosure paperwork in the run up to the so called "subprime crisis" back in the early 2000s and happened to mislay some of that paperwork for a few hundred odd loans that the corporation was trying to pass on to secondary lenders. (Hard to imagine I'm sure, but say it was something that could theoretically happen due to distraction from noting the ridiculous initial loan terms plus, say maybe, finding out you were being paid less than the person under you.

Would something as unlikely as that happen, you might find that your department is getting all sorts of attention from the men in the fancy suits from way above amid mumbling of things like possibly having to restate earnings for the quarter, whatever that might mean, obviously something well beyond the ken of a humble hourly paperwork shuffler. That kind of thing can really make a impersonal corporation feel homey and more like a family again as all those great and remote managers get involved with your tiny little niche of that vast financial empire. It's touching really, seeing the big and powerful hobnobbing with the little folk like that. Not that this has anything at all to do with the query about sabotage, just sprung to mind by coincidence really.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:54 AM on June 19 [33 favorites]

Apropos of nothing, I have always wanted to hear "Sabotage" played on taiko drums. It would be the perfect anthem for 2020.
posted by Soliloquy at 12:09 PM on June 19

Sabotage? No. Ethics reporting of superiors, yes.

My favorite proletariat message (though I can't credit it) is:
All it would take to bring capitalism to a screaming halt is for workers to literally do exactly as they were told.
posted by j_curiouser at 12:57 PM on June 19 [5 favorites]

I can't think of any time that I ever deliberately sabotaged work, but I had my work sabotaged nearly every day, sometimes multiple times a day, for most of a 2.5 year application project with a contractor. He didn't have much other work and was being paid an outrageous rate by my employer, so every incident of sabotage made our project take longer and kept him in a position to pay his bills that much longer.

After the first week or so of his denials and "oopsie" responses and my having to rewrite the code or rebuild the forms or whatever he had sabotaged that time, I started keeping a backup of every change that I made so that I could quickly restore my changes that he had overwritten.

It's understandable that he wanted to drag out his only source of income, but was very frustrating to me, especially that he was kept on the project after the project manager confirmed to the boss that the guy was doing all this sabotage. For the last 4 months or so, he was paid for 40 hours a week or sitting in his cubicle talking to his wife on the phone and playing games, so that I could get the project completed and launched.
posted by notashroom at 1:42 PM on June 19

I love that book. There's one thing in it, though, that drives me crazy: there’s an excellent story from a guy who worked at a restaurant with an abusive manager. The sabotage itself is pretty hilarious, but the guy describes the abusive manager as a “cross between Captain Kirk and Charles Nelson Reilly — an incompetent leader who's always yelling at people” or words to that effect. I was always sort of stumped at that description, because I’m pretty sure Captain Kirk wasn’t meant to be an incompetent leader. After a while it hit me: I assume he meant Captain Queeg, not Captain Kirk. I figured it was a transcription error.

Yeah, that’s bugged me for almost 25 years now. I guess I should move on.
posted by holborne at 1:58 PM on June 19 [4 favorites]

It wasn't at all sabotage, but I have misused my work in the past.

I was doing temp work data entry for some kind of golf program that was national at a lot of courses (really a lot) and it had a lot of levels one could buy membership at. Signing up for one meant signing up for all, and my job was to take the cards filled out by hand at various golf courses and input all the handwritten information into the system.

One day I came across a card from someone who had the exact same birth date as me. He paid for the lowest membership level. I entered his information and gave him the most possibly expensive level membership. Nationwide. Like, total white glove service.

I was like, Hey! Happy birthday!
posted by hippybear at 6:07 PM on June 19 [15 favorites]

From Sabotage in the American Workplace:
> We handle mainly fine art prints by artists like [...] Andy Warhol [...]
> I don't have much respect for the art [...] to me it's like handling cans of soup.
-- Bill, Art Gallery Assistant.
posted by nickzoic at 9:10 PM on June 19 [2 favorites]

I called up my dad to ask him where they found wine bottles in Volkswagens, and apparently the Rabbit (brand new in the US at the time) had a unsealed hollow tube that made up a piece of the rear suspension that was just the perfect size for a wine bottle.

But, a wine bottle only showed up twice. Apparently the most common thing to show up in brand new cars were empty small milk cartons like you would have with your lunch as a kid. Or as an adult auto line worker in Wolfsburg.
posted by sideshow at 10:05 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]

j_curiouser - one of the things I remember from my youth (when industrial action was a lot more of a thing) was "work to rule" strikes. I.e. we'll only do exactly what we're contracted to do and no more. The fact that staff doing only doing what they were paid to do was considered a form of disruption should have been a massive clue, but I missed it at the time.
posted by YoungStencil at 12:20 AM on June 20 [7 favorites]

I take it none of you guys read r/MaliciousCompliance
posted by DreamerFi at 6:50 AM on June 20 [3 favorites]

Some of these stories are great, but a lot of them are "I stole stuff" or "I broke stuff", neither in particularly interesting or unusual ways. "I figured the boss would be an asshole eventually, so I just stole stuff from day one and felt great when I was finally fired."

I did like the probation officer a lot, the people in the group homes, most of the medical ones.
posted by jeather at 7:11 AM on June 22

I'm about halfway through this book now and enjoying it. It reminds me of an old-school blog, and it probably would have been if the author had gotten the idea 10 years later.

Some of these stories are great, but a lot of them are "I stole stuff" or "I broke stuff", neither in particularly interesting or unusual ways.

This is fair, but for me it's fascinating to see how all these people feel precisely the same level of justified, where from my perspective about half of them are totally justified and half of them are terrible people.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:37 AM on June 22

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