The Dangers of Disgruntled Ex-Employees

Ex-employees who believe that they have been mistreated by the company where they worked may be highly motivated — and effective — at competing against their former employers.

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Are you overlooking the danger of losing unhappy employees to your competition?

Tough economic conditions in recent years have forced many companies to cut costs wherever they can, and sometimes this has had a direct negative impact on employees’ perceptions of their jobs and their treatment at work. Meanwhile, although it is true that employees are less likely to change jobs during a recession, experience shows that once things look up, turnover rates increase significantly. Unsurprisingly, talented yet disgruntled employees are often the ones to leave first.

To study the impact of disgruntled employees leaving an organization, three of the authors of this article, Federica Pazzaglia, Karan Sonpar and Scott Flynn, studied a phenomenon known in professional soccer as the “Immutable Law of the Ex,” which postulates that players play unusually well against their former teams. The research project built and tested a theory on how previously mistreated players’ knowledge of their former team’s routines and their desire to exact revenge improves both the players’ and their new team’s performances against the players’ former teams. The theory was tested through a study of 402 head-to-head matches in the English Premier League from 2000 to 2005, carried out by analyzing more than 2,500 newspaper articles. These articles included both independent match reports that rated the individual performance of the various players and interviews with the players and the managers of both teams. (Detailed findings from the study were reported in the September/October 2012 issue of the journal Human Resource Management.)

The study found that anger and pressure to prove loyalty to the new organization, as well as knowledge of the former team’s routines, led to superior performances against a former team by transferred players who left that former team on bad terms. These results draw attention to how heightened emotional states such as anger can stimulate exceptional performances when employees move to rival organizations and compete against their former employers.


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