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Employees Behaving Badly

HR Magazine, October 2003How managers can recognize and combat employee 'desk rage.'

A Dallas newspaper printed a story last year about a man who got upset at his washing machine, dragged it out the front door and unloaded his shotgun into it. He was subsequently hauled away by police. Reporting on the incident the following day, a reporter described the man’s action as “appliance rage.” Excuse me? Appliance rage?

Appliance rage, road rage, air rage … yes, “rage” is all the rage. Now add this new workplace buzzword to your vernacular: “desk rage.” Far from funny, desk rage is a real issue with serious implications for today’s managers. Stressed-out employees are losing their cool, displaying anger and having temper tantrums at work. Desk rage often takes the form of rudeness, yelling, verbal abuse, attacks on office equipment and even fistfights with co-workers.

What Is Desk Rage?

Workplace violence that culminates in bloodshed garners a lot of publicity. Far more common, however, are the shouting matches and fistfights that don’t make the evening news.

Examples abound. One corporation invited me to teach a stress and anger management seminar. Fifteen minutes before the start, I was warned that a certain employee who “throws things and put holes in the walls” would be in attendance.

An information technology department I worked with reported a record number of broken keyboards in a single month from employees banging on them in frustration.

While teaching at an aerospace company, I personally witnessed two managers almost come to blows over the procedure for filing paperwork on a faulty part.

Swearing, crying, sarcastic comments, “evil eye” and attendance problems—the signs are all there.

“So desk rage is really workplace violence,” a manager once observed. Actually, that’s where a distinction is drawn. Certainly, extreme desk rage can be a precursor to violence. Managers must enforce a zero-tolerance policy, which prohibits threats of violence or acts of bodily harm. Realize, however, not everyone who gets angry at work is a raging psychopath who intends to blow up the company.

Desk rage is seen as resulting from “normal” stress. Some people are just pushed too far or haven’t been taught productive outlets for stress. Think of desk rage as “stress on steroids.”

Causes and Effects

Employees always have encountered workplace stress, but several economic and social trends have either intensified or heightened worker sensitivity to it—war, a bad economy, layoffs, greater workloads, increased productivity demands and longer hours. Mix that with smaller, cramped workspaces that make employees feel restless and disorganized. Add office clutter, shorter response time requirements and a dash of technology to increase customer expectations. Beat out interpersonal communication. Blend with shifting responsibilities and work that is never complete, reducing time spent off work. Add a fluid, diverse, multi-generational workforce with different work process methods, and you’ve got a recipe for extreme stress.

According to a new workplace survey by CIGNA Behavioral Health titled “Worried at Work: Mood and Mindset in the American Workplace,” workers are stressed to epidemic proportions. Forty-four percent of employees surveyed said their job was more stressful than it was a year earlier. As a result, 45 percent said they’ve either considered leaving their job in the last year, left a job or plan to do so soon.

Extremely stressful conditions can cause employees to have short tempers and poor working relationships. In its 2000 “Assessing and Attacking Workplace Incivility” survey of 775 workers, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School showed that 12 percent of workers had quit their jobs to avoid nasty people at work, and 45 percent were thinking about doing so. In addition, more than half of workers lost time worrying about irate or rude people in the office.

As a manager, you should be very concerned with the stress levels of your employees, because stress has a big impact on worker productivity. To try to prevent desk rage, you must identify employee stress and catch it before it blows up.

Recognizing Extreme Stress

Usually, people don’t suddenly flip out; they give off early warning signals. Luckily, managers can observe signs of stress in employee behavior, beginning with milder signs and culminating in desk rage. Be observant for the following stress stages:

  1. Physical stage: headaches, illness, fatigue.

  2. Social stage: negativity, blaming things on others, missed deadlines, working through lunch.

  3. Cerebral stage: clock-watching, errors in assignments, minor accidents, absentmindedness, indecisiveness.

  4. Emotional stage: anger, sadness, crying, yelling, feelings of being overwhelmed, depression.

  5. Spiritual stage: brooding, crying, wanting to make drastic changes in life, not relating well with people, distancing themselves from personal relationships.

Desk rage is usually a stage 4 stress reaction when an employee “just can’t take it anymore.” The manager’s role is to catch people in the earlier stress stages and circumvent more serious issues.

Difficulty can arise when two employees have opposite reactions to the same type of experience—one person is challenged while another is profoundly affected. Managers must distinguish positive stress signals in employees from negative ones. Some stress is good and necessary for employees to experience drive, motivation and ambition. Workers without enough stress at work can have a lackluster performance at work from boredom or lack of challenge. (For more information, see “Stress for Success” in the July issue of HR Magazine.)

Too much stress can result in diminished performance and desk rage. (See “Stressed Out,” above.)

Combating Desk Rage

If you see signs of high stress levels and inappropriate behavior in employees, you must intervene. Here are ways managers can combat desk rage and rudeness in the workplace:

  • Evaluate employee workloads. This almost goes without saying, but since overwork is one of the biggest causes of desk rage, try not to pile too much on one person. When you have key employees who work hard and effectively, you naturally delegate important projects and tasks to them. That’s understandable because you trust them. Unfortunately, your over-zealousness and confidence in your superstars can burn them out. If you want to keep your key people, make sure you share the load with other employees. Encourage employees to be honest when they are overloaded. Determine which tasks have little value and could be taken off their plates. Offer time management coaching or help in prioritizing tasks.

  • Confront employee aggression. Your staff is most likely aware of a co-worker’s anger problems, but they may be reluctant to say something to you for fear of getting that person in trouble. So if you observe someone brushing by a co-worker in the hall, making a sarcastic comment, yelling at a colleague or equipment, or calling people inappropriate names, you must intervene. Think of desk rage as a performance management situation. Don’t look the other way and condone bullying.

    Meet with the employee and handle the difficult situation with the following model: Thank the employee for meeting with you and express your concerns, noting where the behavior specifically affects performance. Listen actively and responsively while the employee explains the situation from his/her point of view. Discover areas of stress and empathize with concerns. Share thoughts and ideas on how to overcome challenges, both in the workplace and with negative behaviors. Get agreement from the employee on the decided course of action. Arrange a follow-up date to ensure follow-through and to determine progress.

  • Reduce noise levels. According to a 2002 study by Cornell University, “Stress and Open Office Noise,” employees who are exposed to constant, low-level noises in their environments—keyboards, voices or the hum of a photocopier—have elevated levels of stress hormones. Workers in noisier settings run out of steam more quickly and don’t concentrate as well.

    Encourage workers to take lunch, get away from the office and get some fresh air. If you’re going to be out of the office, offer your office to an employee needing privacy to complete an important task. Try white-noise machines or headsets. Ask HR or administrative services to find solutions to offset noise such as relocating copy machines or installing higher cubicle partitions.

  • Encourage employees to take advantage of de-stressing programs. Many organizations have an employee wellness program that includes massage, meditation, yoga or tai chi. Workout facilities, recreation rooms and even putting greens are making their way into the workplace. The Denver Water Department has private rooms where workers can shut the door and nap. Some organizations help with car pooling, feeling that decreased road rage equates to decreased desk rage. Managers should encourage employees to use these programs and should be a good role model by using them too.

  • Sponsor seminars. Workshops on stress management, emotional control and professional courtesy are becoming as commonplace as sexual harassment and diversity training. Educate your employees about the signs of stress, how to control anger and how to deal with an irate person. Without the tools to handle desk rage at work, employees will waste time worrying about or trying to avoid nasty people at work or will quit to avoid them.

  • Evaluate people on civility. Having specific policies and a new line on your performance appraisal rating employees on manners, civility and courtesy might alter the way people behave toward one another. People might think twice before spouting off if it’s going to show up on their performance reviews and affect their raises or bonuses.

  • Encourage vacations. Despite having the least number of vacation days per year of employees in any other country, one in six U.S. employees is so overworked that he is unable to use up annual vacation time, according to a 2001 Oxford Health Plans survey. However, vacation is not frivolous activity; it’s essential to staying healthy and productive. Don’t let employees wear “no vacation” like a badge of honor. When an employee hasn’t had a vacation in two years, you should be seriously unimpressed. Respectfully tell that employee it’s time to take a break.

  • Have fun. Lighten up the environment and boost employee morale with a few stress-reducing, laughter-producing initiatives. One manager at Nextel routinely hands out stress toys and squeezies in the call center. There are little carnivals on the floor, festivals in the parking lot and game shows. For example, employees with perfect attendance each month spin the wheel and win “funny money,” which buys merchandise from the Nextel catalog. Phone reps occasionally get two paid hours off in shifts to go to a movie. It’s more fun and less stressful to work in a company where people enjoy themselves and have a good time.

  • Encourage EAP programs and counseling. Some employees need professional help beyond your ability and could benefit from short-term therapy. Your employee assistance program (EAP) can help employees cope with high stress levels. Although you can’t legally refer an employee to an EAP, you could remind all employees of the availability of the service, should they feel the need for some extra help to get through a difficult time. Some companies offer free onsite anger management counseling services for employees during work hours.

  • Involve HR. If employees are sexually harassed, they generally know where to go and how to report it. Most companies, however, lack procedures to report rudeness because being rude to a co-worker isn’t against the law. Work with HR to create procedures so if employees don’t feel comfortable going to you, they have somewhere to go. Employees should know where to turn when someone brings them to tears.

    As children, we cried to get our way. If that didn’t work, we screamed. If that reaped no results, we threw a temper tantrum—kicking, squirming or holding our breath. That usually did it. People did things for us. It took genuine rage and anger to pull that off, but it got people’s attention.

    Now we’ve grown up. Or, have we? I’ve seen managers get angry and yell when others won’t do what they want. It’s a bad way to arrive at a decision, but temper tantrums still work for some. Evaluate your own behavior and make sure you’re not contributing to the problem. If you’re constantly yelling at your assistant, don’t be shocked when the assistant yells at someone else. What is tolerated will be repeated; what is modeled will be reinforced.
Laura Stack is a certified speaking professional and trainer based in Denver. Her upcoming book, Leave the Office Earlier, will be released by Broadway Books in spring 2004. Stack is an expert on employee productivity and workplace issues. She can be reached via her web site at

​Stressed Out

  • 42% say yelling and verbal abuse occurs in their workplace.
  • 29% admit to yelling at co-workers because of stress.
  • 23% were driven to tears because of workplace stress.
  • 14% say they have seen machinery or equipment damaged through workplace rage.
  • 10% say physical violence has occurred in their workplace because of stress.

Source: “Desk Rage Survey of American Workers,” Opinion Research Corp. and Integra Realty Resources, 2001.


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