Robin Hood meets the office: how corporate managers try to fix workplace injustices by giving employees secret perks
A new study co-authored by the UBC Sauder School of Business has found that when senior managers mistreat workers, middle managers often attempt to quietly smooth things over.
Robin Hood was known for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor — but while he may have lived in Sherwood Forest centuries ago, he would have fit right in as a middle manager in today’s business world.
Studies have shown that when employees are mistreated by senior leaders, employees can often get back at them by doing things like gossiping, stealing office supplies or calling in sick when they’re well. But according to new research from UBC Sauder, middle managers also get in on the act, and attempt to address workplace injustices by secretly helping out their subordinates when they can.
In fact, managers with an especially strong moral code can consider it their duty to right the wrongs they see, and to compensate victims in hidden ways — out of view of the top brass.
For the paper, titled When Managers Become Robin Hoods: A Mixed Method Investigation, the research team from UBC Sauder, Emlyon, University of Colorado and the University of Toulouse first interviewed 35 middle managers — 20 men and 15 women — at a European publishing company that employs roughly 550 workers. There, they confirmed that managers knowingly engaged in “robin hoodism.”
In several follow-up studies involving hundreds of participants from countries around the world, the researchers also examined whether co-workers were aware the robin hoodism was happening, when it was most likely to happen, and what drove managers to potentially risk their own jobs to help those beneath them.
What they found was that robin hoodism is not at all unusual, and amounts to a kind of invisible wage system, where middle managers compensate victims under the table in a variety of ways — from extra vacation time to higher travel allowances to equipment they’re allowed to take home — after they have experienced a workplace injustice.
The type of slight also plays a part: managers were more likely to dole out extra favours when the worker was treated poorly on an interpersonal level as opposed to a bureaucratic one.
“Managers minded if a salary wasn’t the highest, or if bureaucratic procedures were a problem,” says UBC Sauder Professor and study co-author Daniel Skarlicki (he/him/his).
“But when a victim got cheated out of an outcome like a promotion, or was mistreated interpersonally or insulted, that especially seemed to really trigger managers into action to do something about it. That’s when the Robin Hoods really get inspired.”
In one example, a woman was given time off to attend her daughter’s graduation, but then a senior manager revoked that approval. The woman’s immediate manager was sympathetic and took the whole crew out for dinner to help make amends.
But not all managers dispensed their robin hoodism equally. The researchers tested the moral identity — that is, the degree to which people see themselves as moral — of 187 managers in an MBA program in France. They found that managers who scored higher on the moral identity scale were more likely to engage in robin hoodism than those who scored lower.
“That gave us additional data that managers’ moral concerns really do underlie robin hoodism,” says Professor Skarlicki, who has done many studies involving justice in the workplace. “It’s an interesting paradox, because some people might view what Robin Hood did as unethical — and yet managers who do it actually see themselves as doing the right thing.”
Middle managers are in an especially tricky position because they can’t punish the transgressor — their boss — but they want to keep the workers beneath them feel they are treated fairly. At the same time, because senior executives are making financial decisions, and don’t account for their managers doling out extra gifts and bonuses, that robin hoodism could put a serious dent in their companies’ bottom lines. Still, says Professor Skarlicki, executives who discover Robin Hoods in their midst in some cases might be wise to turn a blind eye.
“When a senior leader has done something that's offensive or mistreats an employee, it's really important that the manager has a bit of wiggle room to be able to fix it. It's really a way of absorbing some of the mistreatment that can happen, even inadvertently,” says Professor Skarlicki. But those same leaders probably shouldn’t advertise that they’re allowing it, he adds.
“You don't want to say, ‘Hey, managers, you can go out and give everybody extra bonuses,’ because then you don't really have a lot of control over spending and other things.”
Professor Skarlicki says he suspected that robin hoodism was happening in workplaces, but was surprised by the pervasiveness of the practice.
“I was surprised that it was so common, and so commonly known that managers do it,” he says, adding a final thought for senior leaders. “If you’re treating people unfairly, your organization is not running as smoothly as it could, because victims are getting even, and managers are taking it upon themselves to make things right.”
Interview languages: English