The High Price of Pettiness at Work

Bad behavior is more harmful (and weirder) than you think.

By Alexander Alonso September 4, 2019
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​Imagine you’re at work when your friendly HR professional stops by your desk to let you know a complaint has been made against you. Something about your recent behavior. Your heart races. You start to panic. But who filed the grievance? What did you do to offend them?

You listen closely as the HR professional outlines the nature of your purported transgression: “You were observed taking a tissue from the box in the cubicle next to yours. A third party submitted a claim that you’d stolen the tissue.”

Yes, this was an actual incident, as reported in all seriousness to me by someone who was involved.

What would you do? Share a hearty laugh with the HR professional? Wonder how petty someone has to be to report such “misbehavior”?

Incidents like this are no laughing matter in many organizations. In plenty of workplaces, pettiness is the norm.

The Pervasiveness of Pettiness

Just how pervasive is pettiness? Of nearly 15,000 people recently surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management, an astounding 98 percent indicated that they had experienced pettiness in the workplace. Nearly 68 percent reported experiencing pettiness of some kind as the result of a conflict they didn’t even realize was happening!

This survey’s findings drove my interest in formally studying just how bad the pettiness problem is and how people are responding to it. (Their creativity knows no bounds!) The result of this investigation, The Price of Pettiness: Bad Behavior in the Workplace and How to Stomp it Out (SHRM, 2019), can help anyone who has ever encountered petty difficulties in the workplace.


MOST-COMMON PETTY BEHAVIORS

Acting unprofessionally.

Acting immaturely or childishly.

 Undermining a boss or co-worker to peers.


The book explores what pettiness does to culture and what makes some organizations prone to prolonged bouts of petty behaviors perpetrated by employees at every level. My research team and I uncovered nearly 1,600 cases of people acting in prolifically petty ways.

Some examples:

  • A group of analysts ate stinky lunches at their desks for the sole purpose of preventing their odor-sensitive boss from speaking to them.
  • A simmering disagreement among workers over the office thermostat setting erupted in a literal fistfight.
  • A group of senior health care professionals who, unsatisfied with the level of deference shown by a group of new hires, sent them an unsettling “message” in the form of a frozen whole fish.

Some of these offenders suffered no consequences, but more often they damaged reputations—their own and others’—and a few even derailed entire careers.

Thwarting Pettiness

So much pettiness abounds, and this book provides practical tools for increasing awareness of the problem. These tools include the Pettiness Index, which helps you quantify the prevalence of petty behaviors in your life, as well as ideas to develop mindfulness, job satisfaction and teamwork.

Many people have asked for my tips on how to address humanity’s endless moments of pettiness. Here are three:

  • Know the root cause of conflicts. Petty behavior is often the end result, not the origin, of discord.
  • Understand your personality to improve your relationships with others. Pettiness is commonly rooted in personalities.
  • Assess your own penchant for pettiness. To that end, the book includes a checklist designed to help you know yourself better and spare others the full impact of your petty behaviors. It helped me.

Have you experienced pettiness? You are absolutely not alone. To learn more and to share your experiences, contact pettiness@shrm.org.  

Alexander Alonso, SHRM-SCP, is chief knowledge officer for SHRM.

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