Beware IRS Employees Who Have Power But Lack Status

Beware IRS Employees Who Have Power But Lack Status

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The following will come as no suprirse to anyone who has spent any amount of time dealing with the IRS and other government agencies.

Michael Martinez of CNN writes:

A new study by three universities shows that people holding positions of power with low status tend to demean others, one of the authors said.

The research sheds light on why clerks can seem rude or even why the Abu Ghraib guards humiliated and tortured their prisoners, the researcher said.

In an article to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers studied the relationship between the status and the power of a job, said Nathanael Fast, assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

The study, “The Destructive Nature of Power without Status,” determined that the combination of some authority and little perceived status can be toxic.

[Read the original article for the methodology of the study]

“We found that people who had high power and high status, they were pretty cool,” Fast told CNN. “But it was people who had power and lacked status who used their power to require other persons to engage in demeaning behavior.”

In a field of study where psychologists and business schools are now jointly looking at how power shapes business relationships, the study’s authors examined the notions of how low status is “threatening and aversive” and how power “frees people to act on their internal states and feelings,” the researchers say.

The research found that “individuals in high-power/low-status roles chose more demeaning activities for their partners (e.g., bark like a dog, say “I am filthy”) than did those in any other combination of power and status roles.”

“Our findings indicate that the experience of having power without status, whether as a member of the military or a college student participating in an experiment, may be a catalyst for producing demeaning behaviors that can destroy relationships and impede goodwill,” the study said.

I have dealt with all levels of IRS employees in my 20 plus years of tax practice and I find Mr. Fast’s theoretical conclusions to be absolutely true in practice.

The rudest IRS employees and the ones most likely to disrespect taxpayers and their representatives are the ones with the least status. In fact, many of us in the tax profession have an unkind name we privately call these folks: Peons with power.¹

That’s my take. What do you think?


¹   The problem is not limited to the public sector. I have encountered many peons with power in the private sector, as well. They yell, they threaten and they hurl insults rather than calmly explain the law or dispute your arguments. It is obvious that they do this because they lack confidence in their abilities. In short, they don’t believe they belong there.

About Peter Pappas

Peter is a tax attorney and certified public acccountant with over 20 years experience helping taxpayers resolve their IRS and state tax problems.

He has represented thousands of taxpayers who have been experiencing difficulty dealing with the Internal Revenue Service or State tax officials.

He is a member of the American Association of Attorney-Certified Public Accountants, the Florida Bar Association and The Florida Institute of Certified Public Accountants and is admitted to practice before the United States Tax Court, the United States Supreme Court, U.S. District Courts - Middle District of Florida


  1. This author is spot on. In fact I have found that until you get to the level of “IRS Local Attorney” forget it.