NEW YORK (MainStreet) — One labor relations expert has some advice for workers pining to exact justice against a monster boss : make sure you focus on acts of omission or inaction, rather than overt efforts to harm a boss, no matter how nightmarish he or she is.

A study by job sites Monster.com and Spherion.com last year showed that managers in general really get under the skin of rank-and-file workers. Researchers found that 45% of employees say their relationships with their bosses have gotten worse in the last few years, while 53% say their bosses do not respect them as professionals, and 45% of workers say that their managers have taken personal credit for their work.

“At a time when workers arguably need added support and guidance to offset the uncertainties that come with a shaky economy, many bosses simply aren’t stepping up to the plate,” says Loretta Penn, president of Spherion Staffing Services. “Managers need to create an environment that fosters open and direct communication, offers unwavering support for workers and demonstrates commitment to career development. Unfortunately, many of today’s bosses simply aren’t delivering on this responsibility.”

Even so, is it a good career move to exact revenge on a bullying boss?

David I. Levine, an economics and industrial relations professor at the University of California at Berkeley, says you can retaliate – but only up to a point. His work on the subject concluded that any “active” efforts to get back at your boss, like starting rumors about a manager or going over his or her head to complain to management can work against you in the workplace.

But if you strike out against a dysfunctional manager via acts of omission or inaction, like lagging on a project or not telling him or her where a key missing file is located even though you know, then that’s a different story. Sabotage is a much bigger deal than simple passivity.

"Intuition says that doing something is more of a serious act than letting it happen and not stopping it,” says Levine.

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The study, entitled “When Is Employee Retaliation Acceptable At Work?” co-authored by Gary Charness, an economics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, doesn’t cover the ethics of revenge action against employers, but instead examines whether “retaliation may expose managerial misbehavior and could improve organizational effectiveness in the long term.”

Levine and Charness surveyed an unspecified number of San Francisco commuters on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), presenting scenarios involving bosses behaving badly (such as sexually harassing workers or passing over worthwhile employees for promotions for selfish purposes). Respondents felt that it was OK not to tell mangers about a missing file (a revenge act of omission), but study participants were less eager to actually hide a key file themselves (an act of active sabotage).

Levine points out that it’s up to bosses--not retaliating employees--to change their behavior.

“Don’t surprise people,” Levine advises to managers. “When something is about to go wrong or goes wrong, tell your employees why. Managers face high risks of both active retaliation and passive withdrawal of effort if employees are harmed by what they view as a conscious management choice. To the extent that employees are harmed, managers should be sure employees see them sharing the pain, not profiting from employees’ losses.”

If managers don’t accept that advice, then they could be setting the stage for some serious behavior from employees. That, Levine says, could make the entire workplace even more toxic than usual.

Just think it could all be solved by simply being a good boss.

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