You've likely worked with someone who loves policing coworkers who don't take the employee handbook as the literal law of the land. Canadian researchers surveyed U.S. employees and discovered that more than half were familiar with these "Dark Knight workplace vigilantes." Signs someone is a Dark Knight workplace vigilante include having a tendency to regularly bring claims to the attention of authorities, colleagues, or the general public that others have committed moral violations, a breach of company policy, or an unjust act, according to research by Katy DeCelles from the University of Toronto and Karl Aquino from the University of British Columbia.
We often think of vigilantes as comic book or movie characters that take the law into their own hands when the proper authorities have failed to provide justice. For me, the movie The Crow comes to mind, in which Brandon Lee seeks to exact revenge on those who killed him and his fiancée on Devil's Night (the night before Halloween). Other vigilante superheroes include Batman (hence the "Dark Knight" part of this particular piece of research's terminology), Spiderman, Jessica Jones, Superman, and Wonder Woman.
While these vigilantes are seeking justice for actual crimes, or saving people from certain death, the workplace Dark Knight is often busy policing co-workers for things like being on social media on their work computer, not removing their food from the refrigerator at the end of the week, or using the company printer for personal matters. Here are seven characteristics of a Dark Knight workplace vigilante, so you can be on the lookout — since, you know, they probably don't wear capes.
1They Have An Inflated Sense Of Self, Or Strong Sense Of Moral Superiority
The workplace vigilante appoints themselves as the Dark Knight of the office because they believe their morals to be superior to yours. There is often an air of "this is how it's always been done," or "that's what it says in the employee handbook." For reference, think of Taylor Doose on Gilmore Girls who is busy trying to enforce every ridiculous town rule, no matter how arbitrary.
One respondent in the study gave this example: “This person thinks that they are above everyone when they are not. They punish people that they don't like by being very rude to them and telling them what to do. They just act like they are better than everyone.”
Basically, workplace vigilantes are overgrown hall monitors who didn't get the mind-your-own-business memo. It's OK to feel sad for them.
The Dark Knight of your office has trouble keeping their eyes on their own paper. Office vigilantes are often tattletales, reporting every minor infraction to their boss, or to human resources.
The study quoted one respondent as saying the Dark Knight vigilante is a “nuisance" who takes it upon themselves to report perceived wrongdoing to management, and “constantly” criticizes people for simply being “inefficient.” Other respondents similarly described this self-appointed seeker of workplace justice as someone who “reports people for even the mildest of offenses" like leaving food in the fridge, or being a few minutes late.
This is the person who likely never gets invited to happy hour because they will surely repeat the entire conversation to their boss the next day.
3They Exhibit A Pattern Of Monitoring Others
Do you ever get the feeling you're being watched? You're not alone. The workplace vigilante tends to be a bit of a creeper, someone who is constantly monitoring the behavior of others so they can document a slip up. This is different from a whistleblower, who may turn in a co-worker or boss on a one-time basis for truly egregious behavior.
The study reports that the workplace Dark Knight's behavior tends to be habitual. One respondent said: "There is one man at my current job who is constantly questioning people about things in an incredibly aggressive manner. He goes to our manager regularly to report people who stay on break longer than they are supposed to.”
Another respondent noted that the vigilante in their workplace felt that it was her “personal duty” to make sure everyone else was following the rules, and that “she'd appointed herself" to this role. With so much time spent monitoring the behavior of others, the workplace vigilante's actual job might be neglected.
4They Like Seeing Others Punished
The workplace vigilante enjoys having power over others, and being responsible for getting someone in trouble makes them feel very powerful. In fact, there's nothing the workplace vigilante loves more than seeing someone they have reported for forgetting to replace the toilet paper punished.
“It's like they have some kind of strange power trip, or just don't like people or mercy," one survey respondent said.
A Dark Knight at your job monitors your behavior and then tells on you to get you into trouble, kind of like in kindergarten. Whether you receive a talking to from your boss, or you're punished by being assigned bathroom clean up for a week, the Dark Knight gets satisfaction from your suffering, according to the study.
"Often, this was reflected in a vigilant processing of their workplace, actively seeking out evidence of others’ wrongdoing, and then reporting it to authorities and trying to get people punished (or punishing them directly)," the study reports.
An example of someone who punishes a person directly could be Paris Gellar on Gilmore Girls. This kind of behavior can also be labeled as passive aggressive.
5They Do Everything By The Book
For the workplace vigilante, by the book is the only way. These people take what is written in the employee handbook, or code of conduct, literally. Perhaps this is why so many airlines are feeling the heat from recent media reports of people being dragged off airplanes for ridiculous reasons.
This behavior was explored in the famed "Milgram experiment," where Yale University Psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of psychological experiments in 1963 where people from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, were instructed to obey an authority figure who asked them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. The experiment concluded, unexpectedly, that a very "high proportion of people were prepared to obey, albeit unwillingly, even if apparently causing serious injury and distress."
Your workplace Dark Knight may follow rules to the detriment of common sense, and they want to make sure you do the same. Some people might look at a set of rules and decide that they do not make sense. The Dark Knight never does this; they just follow them, even off a cliff if necessary.
6They Want The Boss To Like Them
OK, so who doesn't want their boss to like them? But, the workplace Dark Knight thinks that by spying on others, and reporting their infractions, they will fall into a higher favor with their boss of upper management.
One survey respondent said of her workplace vigilante: “She slinks around…looking to catch people doing things that may be even slightly against code so that she can go to management and get more treats because she is their little pet.”
While the Dark Knight might not jive with their peers, they may be looking to advance by trying to be seen by management as someone who has the company's best interest at heart. The good news is that your boss is probably smart, and will eventually see through this behavior.
You know the type: Overly friendly, asks too many uncomfortable questions, deals out false compliments that are actually insults. The fake office friend. Your workplace vigilante might try to get chummy with you to catch you making a mistake, or not following policy to the letter, especially if you're new.
Your co-workers likely already know that this Dark Knight is not to be trusted, but you could be seen as fresh meat so trust your gut and proceed with caution. Eventually the vigilante burns every bridge, but not before taking a few people down in the process.
One survey respondent noted how the workplace vigilante changed the office culture: "Well no one talks to her anymore about personal things, or anything for very long. Co-workers experienced breach of trust, and one got called into the office [and] they didn't know what for, so that was traumatic. And, it breaks down the team.”
So what should you do? My advice is always to keep your eyes on your own paper. This Dark Knight will eventually facilitate their own undoing.