Who left food in the fridge? The rise of the 'Dark Knight' workplace vigilante

Self-appointed enforcers, keen to report colleagues for misdemeanours, are a common – and potentially costly – issue for organisations, survey finds

They are the Dark Knights of the office: lone vigilantes who police the workplace, ever watchful for heinous crimes that cannot go unpunished. Woe to those who step out of line and return from break two minutes late, leave food in the office fridge too long and fail to refill the photocopier.

More famous for populating Wild West gangs, superhero movies and the New York subway, vigilantes are now found in all corners of professional life, a new survey has found. Over the course of their careers, more than half the people surveyed had experienced at least one “Dark Knight employee”, as researchers dubbed them, while 18% said they still worked with one.

Researchers in Canada asked 2,000 people in the US if they had come across workplace vigilantes, meaning those who took it upon themselves to dob in their colleagues for breaches of company policy, or what they deemed to be egregious moral violations. 58% had, and on average, respondents recalled four work colleagues over the course of their career who fitted the description.

The self-appointed enforcers cropped up in large organisations the most, and in areas such as retail and technical services. Education, government and other sectors where staff typically belonged to unions had a high share too, researchers found. Companies with ethics hotlines and other formal mechanisms for grassing on one’s colleagues spawned high numbers of office vigilantes. Of the 20 sectors surveyed, those in forestry and agricultural work, mining and utilities appeared most likely to be spared the ordeal of vigilante colleagues.

After weeding out stories of employees who were simply unpleasant, Katy DeCelles at the University of Toronto and Karl Aquino at the University of British Columbia were left with 1,200 accounts of Dark Knight employees. In most cases, respondents made no attempt to hide their contempt for the colleagues in question.

Derided as members of the “little Justice League” or simply “Batman”, vigilantes were described as “slinking around” and “creeping over people’s shoulders”, to catch others perpetrating even the most minor offences. One respondent described a colleague who would always go to the higher-ups, getting “good people punished for small reasons,” adding: “It’s like they have some kind of strange power trip. Or just don’t like people or mercy.”

In a report on the survey, entitled “Vigilantes at work: examining the frequency of Dark Knight employees,” DeCelles and Aquino reveal the petty nature of the infringements many were brought up on. “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. Not putting things back in precisely the right place was another crime that vigilantes commonly swooped on. “Our paper is the first to demonstrate that workplace vigilantes are indeed among us, in virtually every industry,” DeCelles and Aquino add.

Much to the authors’ surprise, three people who responded to the survey declared themselves office vigilantes. One felt obliged to look out for property being swiped from the company, while another saw their role as holding the company to account: “I am a workplace vigilante. If a workplace is abusing me or its workers I’ll say something,” they declared.

For the most part, Dark Knight employees were seen as little more than a nuisance. According to the survey, their work colleagues felt stressed, angry and frustrated by vigilantes, and shut up in their presence or avoided them as much as possible.

But many people who took part in the survey reported serious fallout from self-appointed enforcers. Some of the vigilantes’ targets were reprimanded, fired, or quit their jobs under pressure of scrutiny. On occasion, the vigilantes themselves were “terminated”, according to the report. Referring to one Dark Knight employee, a respondent said: “This person was written up twice, given several verbal warnings, moved to a new shift, and then let go since she could not stop. It was so bad it was causing people to quit.”

DeCelles and Aquino urge other researchers to delve deeper into what they call “workplace vigilante syndrome.” Dark Knight employees appear to be “a common and potentially costly phenomenon for organisations,” they conclude.


Ian Sample Science editor

The GuardianTramp

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