Unrest on the Job: Has ‘Desk Rage’ Hit Your Co-workers?

Cites consultant Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on WebMD

Companies may soon begin to hold training seminars on manners just as they do for sexual harassment and discrimination. In fact, a handful of U.S. companies are already hiring outside consultants to cope with the rudeness that seems to be about as commonplace as water coolers and copy machines in today’s offices and workplaces.

Whether it’s brushing by someone in the hall, calling your assistant incompetent, or cutting someone in line for the fax machine, corporate rudeness takes its toll.

A study of 775 employees conducted at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School showed that 12% of workers had quit their jobs to avoid nasty people at work, and 45% are thinking about doing so. In addition, more than half of workers lost time worrying about rude people in the office.

By all accounts, workplace stress is at an all-time high, and the number of violent workplace incidents has tripled since 1989. While incidents such as December’s deadly shooting spree at an Internet consulting firm near Boston are the exception, not the rule, all across America workers are yelling, cursing, slamming down phones, and damaging office supplies as they struggle with what psychologists call ‘desk rage.’

“The same factors that cause rudeness at large lead to incivility in the workplace,” explains Giovinella Gonthier, a Chicago etiquette consultant who gives lessons to individuals and consultants.

According to Gonthier, a number of factors are to blame. They include: corporate downsizing; pressure to produce more quickly with fewer resources; and the mushrooming population, which results in less space to work in, drive in, and play in.

An additional survey, released by Integra Realty Resources in New York, showed that one in 10 workers say employees have come to blows because of stress at work, and more than 40% said there is yelling and verbal abuse in their office. More than 20% of the 1,305 workers surveyed said that they have been driven to tears due to workplace stress. What’s more, the survey showed that people who work in cubicles are more stressed than people who don’t.

“Another major factor is that an entire generation of children has been raised without a lot of manners,” says Gonthier. “They have been raised by parents who grew up in the 1960s who felt too constrained by boundaries, so they raised their own children with greater permissiveness.”

Then, “In mid-’80s and 1990s, everyone focused on technology, so companies put all of their budgets into technology training and neglected soft skills such as manners and civility,” she tells WebMD. “Now you have a whole generation of employees skilled in computers who are lacking in dealing with people.”

Another problem, she says, is that “we don’t have a sense of ‘community,’ so if we make a vulgar gesture to a neighbor or someone on the road, they won’t know who we are. There’s no humiliation factor.”

Business casual dress codes may also be to blame, she says. “The casualness of dress code has affected the mentality of what is an appropriate business code of behavior,” says Gonthier. “If I am dressed casually, my behavior is going to be casual.”

Gonthier practices what she preaches. A seasoned diplomat, she was the ambassador to the United Nations and U.S. for Seychelles, an island republic off the coast of Kenya. She served as the charge d’affair in the Seychelles Paris embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seychelles. She has also been an ambassador to some of the Central American countries and to Cuba.

In today’s economy, she says, more job choices equal less loyalty. “If you view your employment situation as temporary, you are not going to care about how you behave,” she explains.

But the tide — not to mention the job market — may be turning, she says.

Gonthier’s company and others like it are working toward educating management about the consequences of incivility in the workplace, including how it affects employee retention and diminished productivity levels.

Usually, there are one or two people causing unhappiness in a corporate environment. Gonthier calls this person (or persons) “the rudester.”

But even one rudester can cause a ripple effect, she says. “If the CEO is yelling and screaming at his executive assistant, then his executive assistant will start screaming and yelling at other co-workers,” she says.

And who are you going to tell?

There are no procedures in place to report rudeness in most companies. “If an employee is sexually harassed, they know where to go, [but] companies are not recognizing civility as important or necessary until someone gets shot, slapped, or equipment is damaged,” she says.

Unfortunately, “companies don’t place a priority on workplace civility because it is not against the law the way that discrimination and sexual harassment are,” Gonthier tells WebMD. “When it comes to civility training, [companies] don’t have to do it because there’s no law against incivility.”

“I don’t think [rudeness] needs to be criminalized. People just need to become more aware of civility, and organizations should start rewarding people who [are civil] and evaluate workers on their soft skills as well as their hard skills,” she says. “This would eliminate the problem.”

Kerry J. Sulkowicz, MD, a New York City-based psychiatrist and management consultant, puts it this way: “Underlying the stress and the blow-ups at work are feelings of helplessness, and I think you can see that at all levels: from the people at bottom of the totem pole to people at the top.”

The new communication technologies have something to do with these feelings of helplessness, says Sulkowicz, who is president of The Boswell Group, a management consulting firm in New York City, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, and a faculty member of New York University’s Psychoanalytic Institute.

Helplessness triggers rage, he says.

“Fantasies are prevalent that more and more can be done by human beings, but it’s technology that can do more — not human beings,” he tells WebMD. “There isn’t enough of a gap between expectations of technology and expectations of human beings.”

If there is a problem with rudeness, incivility, or rage in the office, the first place to start is to involve the human resources department. Then, if necessary, management may want to bring in an outside consultant — like Sulkowicz or Gonthier, for example.

“I think there already is a greater sensitivity to the role of psychology in the workplace,” says Sulkowicz. “We are seeing good trends about the receptivity of managers and leaders to bring in outside counselors. I would hate to think that we would need more shootings to raise our awareness, but inevitably those things do it.”

Written by Denise Mann
Reviewed by Dr. Tonja Wynn Hamptoon