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Saturday, May 30, 2020

Stockholm Syndrome in Indian Organizational Culture

by Tapishnu Samanta and Manish Kumar Singh.

Stockholm syndrome is a state of the mind where a captive develops a psychological alliance towards his or her captors to the extent of defending them (Smith, 2009; Fabrique et al 2007). The term was coined in 1973 by Swedish psychiatrist Nils Bejerot during the Kreditbanken Bank robbery investigation in Stockholm, where four employees, taken hostages, defended their captors and refused to testify against them (Bejerot 1974). At the heart of Stockholm syndrome lies a person who implicitly or explicitly exerts power, control and influence over another person without him noticing that his behaviour is almost to the degree of blind loyalty. This label has been used to define circumstances of incest victims (Carver 2007), prisoners of war (Hunter 1988), political prisoners (Wardlaw 1982), suicidal terrorists (Speckhard 2005), victims of home violence (Walker 2016), rape trauma (Burgess & Holmstrom 1974), sex trafficking (Canada Department of Justice 2012), prostitutes (Karan 2018; Kathleen 1984; Farley 2003), and cases of elder abuse (Scaletta 2006). Several authors have also used Stockholm syndrome to define the relationship between the state and the society, where the citizens tend to be loyal despite the several instances of the country trying to exploit their fundamental human rights (Hudson 2014; Chu 1999).

This concept has been extended to organisational culture, also known as the Corporate Stockholm syndrome where employees of a company start to identify with, and are exceedingly loyal to, an employer who is manifestly hostile to their self-interest (Adorjan et al 2012; Ullrich 2014; Logan 2018). This has become an area of interest in health and labour economics because of the severe health ramifications. India has been consistently ranked among the worst countries for workers' rights (see the ITUC Global Rights Index). A fragmented society, massive unorganized sector, and weak state capacity can be a breeding ground for labour force exploitation (Harriss-White & Gooptu 2009). In this article, we present evidence of Stockholm syndrome in Indian corporate culture from a small pilot study. This study should be seen as a precursor to more rigourous research that may be conducted in the future.

Data and methodology

In-depth interviews were conducted with ten white-collar employees with at least one year of work experience. They were first introduced to questions such as ideal working hours, proper working conditions, and ethics of overtime work. They unanimously agreed that eight hours of working shift should be suitable in an organization and that all overtime duties must be sanctioned only for extreme situations and compensated. They were then asked personal questions related to their corporate experience.

When asked about their working hours, they worked from Monday to Friday for a minimum of nine hours and were frequently burdened with overtime duties. They were occasionally verbally and mentally abused by their managers, especially when there were tight deadlines and tremendous work pressure. Most of them had even stayed up the entire night on a few occasions. It was quite evident from the in-depth interviews that their managers mistreated all the subjects through verbal abuse, long working hours, overtime, and negligence towards their mental and emotional wellbeing. However, they also agreed that they were happy with their work-life as it offered excellent learning opportunity and displayed great loyalty towards their organizations. All the candidates accepted that not being compensated for overtime work made them annoyed and occasionally frustrated, but argued that those conditions were necessary for the success of the organization.

A detailed survey questionnaire was developed based on this data for further qualitative analysis. A pilot survey was conducted with a sample representing the top 5% of the Indian white-collar employees in terms of salary. Fifty-one respondents with at least six months of work experience and employed with organizations in India participated in the survey. The respondents consisted of 76% male and 24% female participants. 86% of the participants represented the service sector, while the remaining 14% represented the manufacturing sector. The group represented 90% of people in the age group of 21-30 years, 6% in the age group of 31-40 years, and 4% in the age group of 41-50 years. Culturally, the participants were from diverse languages and different Tier-1 cities.

The first part of the survey contained personal questions mostly aimed to identify the perceived level of abuse that the employees face in their respective organizations. The corporate abuse was classified into six categories, viz. verbal abuse, financial abuse, mental abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and abuse of work-life balance. Each of these abuses was further classified into five levels viz. not at all, slightly, somewhat, moderately, and extremely. A Likert scale was used in the survey to capture the levels of each of the reported abuses. The second part of the survey asked whether they would recommend their organizations to their friends and relatives.

Level and prevalence of abuse in Indian corporates

Table 1 shows the level and extent of abuse prevalent in Indian organizations based on the responses. Participants who responded "extremely", "moderately", "somewhat" or "slightly" for any of the six abuse categories were cosidered victims of corporate abuse in that category. Over 50% of the respondents (27 out of 51) reported financial and mental abuse in their organization. Further, around 40% of the participants (20 out of 51) reported verbal abuse. While less than 10% reported physical abuse, none of the employees reported sexual abuse in their organizations. It must be noted that the companies represented by the respondents are all corporate-level jobs, and yet physical abuse was reported by the employees.

Table 1: Perceived degree of corporate abuses by the participants in their respective organizations
Verbal abuse Financial abuse Mental abuse Physical abuse Abuse on Work-life balance
Extremely 2 4 1 0 6
Moderately 4 1 3 0 8
Somewhat 3 8 11 3 13
Slightly 11 14 12 1 13
Not at all 31 24 24 47 11
Grand Total 51 51 51 51 51

Moreover, the level of financial and mental abuse reported by the employees is also quite high, with 4 out of the 51 participants reporting extreme financial abuse. Since the numbers are self reported, this may be due to fault in the appraisal system, career stagnation in the current organization, or the participants overrating themselves as high-performing employees. The recorded abuse on work-life balance is also exceptionally high, with around 78% of the employees reporting so.

Do employees stay longer with the abusive employers?

One would believe that the amount of time an employee spends with an employer is inversely proportional to the level of abuse, which means that if an individual is treated well in an organization, he continues to work loyally in the firm and vice versa.

Figure 1 shows the relation between the work experiences of the abused employees with their latest employer against the degree of various abuses. Except for verbal abuse, in all other cases, we found a positive relationship between the level of abuse and the time spent with the employer. The positive slopes observed here suggest that employees stay longer with an abusive employer and the magnitude of the correlation varies from 0.09 for financial abuse to 0.35 for work-life balance abuse, as shown in Table 2.

Figure 1: Graphs showing the level of abuse in different categories versus work experience with the latest organization for abused employees.

Table 2: Correlation between the level of abuse in different categories against work experience with last/current organization for abused employees
Verbal abuse degree Financial abuse degree Mental abuse degree Work-life balance abuse degree
Work experience with last/current employer -0.0102 0.0903 0.1132 0.3460

Based on Table 2, we can also infer the abuse categories which go undetected in an individual's decision to leave a particular job. Correlation analysis suggests the following order: Verbal abuse > Financial abuse > Mental abuse > Abuse on work-life balance. Near zero correlations (-0.01) between verbal abuse and work experience suggest people are almost indifferent to verbal abuse. Financial and mental abuse show small positive correlations (0.09 and 0.11 respectively) suggesting the presence of mild Stockholm syndrome. People are aware of it but instead of acting upon it, people are actually staying a little longer with the job. Abuse of work-life balance stands out with a positive correlation of 0.35. This also suggests how mental abuse and abuse of work-life balance might get undetected. A possibility that better employees leave the organization early and those who stay longer find it difficult to get placed in better jobs elsewhere may also partially explain this result.

Do abused employees recommend their employer?

Here we analyze if there exists any pattern between recommendations made by employees to their relatives or friends to join the organization and the different types of abuse that they face in their jobs. The results obtained from the responses are shown in Table 3. Note that we have assumed that the participants who responded "Maybe" are considering recommending their organizations to others because any employee who is tormented by the abuse in his organization would respond with a clear "No". Hence, "Maybe" as a response has been recognized as an affirmative or a "Yes."

Table 3: Relationship between the report of abuses in organizations by the participants and their recommendation to join their organizations
Recommendation to Join Verbal abuse Financial abuse Mental abuse Physical abuse Abuse on Work-life balance
YesNo YesNo YesNo YesNo YesNo
20 31 27 24 27 24 4 47 40 11
Yes (in %) 90.00 87.10 92.59 83.33 92.59 83.33 100.00 87.23 85.00 100.00
No (in %) 10.00 12.90 7.41 16.67 7.41 16.67 0.00 12.77 15.00 0.00

The table highlights that under the verbal abuse category, we have 20 people who underwent verbal abuse while 31 said there was none. Of the 20 people who reported verbal abuse, 90% would recommend relatives and friends to join the firm. Similarly, under the financial abuse category, we have 27 people who reported financial abuse while 24 said there was none. Of these 27 people who said yes to financial abuse, 92.59% would recommend relatives and friends to join the firm.

Table 3 suggests that most of the employees (over 90% on average) recommend the current organization to their friends and family members. Employees reporting abuse in their organizations are also supporting their employers to friends and families, even more than the non-abused individuals. The fact that a higher proportion of the abused individuals are recommending their organization to friends and family (except for the abuse on work-life balance) than the non-abused ones is even more surprising. For example, in the case of financial abuse, 92.59% of individuals who feel financially abused at work would recommend the organization to their friends and family, while only 83.33% of non-abused individuals would recommend it further. Similarly, 100% of the employees reporting physical abuse in their organization would recommend their employers in comparison to 87.23% of those who haven't expressed physical abuse. Although, the only exception to this pattern is observed in abuse on work-life balance, yet as much as 85% abused individuals have supported their employers further. This gives us a clear indication that despite being exploited by their employers, the majority of employees are recommending their firms to others.


We provide suggestive evidence that corporate Stockholm syndrome is quite prevalent in Indian organizational culture. Searching for a rationale, for most people, due to the immense value that work holds, the threat of losing one's job is a powerful motivation to comply at the beginning. However, with time the employees get emotionally attached to the workplace and develop loyalty towards it. Camaraderie and moral suasion - the view that it was the organization that offered them a monthly salary and the little sacrifice they made was for the good of the organization - helps them justify the abuse. They also believe that it was inevitable while working in a project and was sometimes necessary for the success of the project. This deep loyalty leads them to rationalize the poor treatment of the employer as a necessity for the good of the organization. Some of the employees may even develop a belief that some form of abuse is a norm across the industry irrespective of the company they work for.

It must also be noted that the respondents represent the upper segments of Indian employees in terms of salary, who have not only argumentative power but also the capability of switching jobs. We are of the opinion that if this is prevalent at the very top, then significant concerns would lie in the unorganized industrial sectors. With that being said, since people suffering from corporate Stockholm syndrome most often do not realize about the plight they are already in, no easy solution can be found.

Some employees have created websites/blogs with the provision for others to anonymously rate and review their organizations, and have become immensely popular in a quick time (see, If more and more firms become concerned about their social image, online content related to employee concerns may likely cause a considerable impact.


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The authors are researchers at IIT Delhi. We are thankful to two anonymous referees.

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