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Workplace anger and hostility often manifests itself in ways that have received a great deal of attention from business owners, researchers, legislators, and members of the business press in recent years. Workplace violence and sexual harassment are probably the two best known examples of workplace anger and hostility. But anger and hostility can manifest themselves in less dramatic ways that can nonetheless have a tremendously negative impact on a business by producing an environment marked by poor or non-existent communication, lousy morale, excessive employee absenteeism or turnover, and a host of other undesired conditions. 

Business owners, managers and employees who are unable to control their own anger or effectively respond to the angry outbursts of others will likely find that their business and/or career suffers as a result. Organizations which fail to recognize and deal effectively with this problem will suffer as a result. They may be in breach of their legal duty to ensure their employees’ health, safety and welfare, or guilty of unlawful discrimination, or open to a claim of constructive dismissal.  Their costs will rise because of poor morale and productivity, higher absenteeism and staff turnover. They will find it difficult to attract new staff, and in extreme cases the damage to their image or reputation will mean loss of business.

Of course, not all businesses that utilize employees are confronted with the challenge of addressing and correcting problem workers who behave in an angry or hostile manner towards coworkers or customers. Many enterprises feature a positive work environment and employ staff that enjoy their jobs and relate to one another in a professional manner. But most business owners that have a payroll will eventually encounter someone who exhibits angry or hostile behavior and looms as a potential threat to the financial and /or spiritual health of the organization.  

One of the more obvious conditions in the workplace is that people, in their roles as employees, are distinguished by their vast differences. They come in all forms, divergent experiences and backgrounds, and in remarkably unique psychological makeup. Some are quite stable in their values, lifestyle, reasoning, actions, and direction. Others may be self serving, deceptive, rebellious, or in many other ways problematic.

Entrepreneurs then need to prepare themselves for the day when an employee’s action or words seem to be based on feelings of anger or hostility. Some small business owners underestimate the impact that workplace anger and hostility can have on their business and on their staff, and they do so at their peril. Business owners should be aware that failure to address workplace hostilities can also open them up to legal liability. Moreover, the person who engages in hostile workplace behavior does not have to be an owner or supervisor for the business owner to be vulnerable to charges concerning that person’s behavior, because in the eyes of the law, business owners have the power and obligation to control their employees.

Causes of workplace anger and hostility

Workplace hostility can often be traced to attitudes that have little to do with the current employment situation in which the workers find themselves. Deep-seated feelings of hostility toward other people because of their gender, sexual orientation, political beliefs, or other factors are often firmly in place long before the person begins working at your company. Often, the business owner faced with such an employee will have limited options available to deal with such problems; instead he or she will concentrate efforts on making sure that those undesired attitudes do not disrupt the workplace.

Factors that cause workplace anger, on the other hand, can sometimes be addressed directly. While workplace anger can be traced back to prejudices that are at the root of deep-seated hostility, on many other occasions, work oriented factors serve as the primary catalysts. Common causes of workplace anger include:

  • General harassment, whether sexual or some other form.
  • Favoritism of one employee over another.
  • Rejection (whether arbitrary or for good reason) of a proposal or project in which employee has big emotional investment.
  • Insensitivity by owners or managers.
  • Criticism s of employees in front of staff or clients.
  • Depersonalized workplace environment.
  • Unfair (or tardy) performance appraisals criticism
  • Lack of resources for the employee to meet his/her objectives.
  • Inadequate training.
  • Lack of teamwork.
  • Withdrawal of earned benefits.
  • Betrayal of trust extended to manager or owner.
  • Unreasonable demands on employees.
  • Does not keep promises.
  • Lack of flexibility on part of owner or manager.
  • Poor communication.
  • Feedback is wholly or primarily negative in tone.
  • Absence leadership) such as instances wherein needed disciplinary action is absent).
  • Micro managerial environment in which staff decision-making opportunities are limited. 


Warning Signs

Workplace anger is often sublimated by employees until they reach a point where they suddenly burst. This “bursting” point may manifest itself in a variety of ways. One employee may just yell at his manager, while another may impetuously decide to quit. Still others may resort to workplace violence or vandalism.

Business owners and managers should acquaint themselves with the warning signs of hidden anger so that they can address the causes for that anger and hopefully head off an incident before it occurs. Other employees, meanwhile, exhibit behavior that is more obviously troubling.


 Following are a range of behaviors that may only signal a need for intervention.

  • Sarcastic, irritable, or moody behavior
  • Apathetic and/or inconsistent work performance
  • Prone to making direct or veiled threats
  • Aggressive and antisocial behavior
  • Overreaction to company policies or performance appraisals
  • Touchy relationships with other workers
  • Obsessive involvement and/or emotional attachment to job.

Stopping Or Preventing Expressions Of Workplace Hostility And Anger

Attempts to address inappropriate workplace behavior through negotiation and mediation are not always effective. In some instances, an employee’s conduct and/or performance will leave the business owner with no alternative but resort to disciplinary action. This discipline can take a variety of forms, from suspension to negative comments in the employee’s personnel file to yanking the worker off a plum project. Reports on the effectiveness of such steps vary considerably. Some firms contend that such measures inform the employee that his or her problematic behavior will not be tolerated and can be an effective tool in triggering behavioral reforms, especially if the punishment has a financial dimension. But others insist that such measures, especially if used without first pursuing other options, may only deepen feelings of animosity and hostility.

No two business enterprises or employees are alike. Researchers agree, however, there are a number of steps that employers can take to address the issues of workplace anger and hostility before they erupt into full-blown crises.

  1. Explicitly state your absolute opposition to inappropriate behavior in writing. This can often be included as part of a new hire’s employee guidelines package, but business owners should also consider displaying such “zero tolerance” statements in public areas. Such statements should also clearly delineate which types of comments and actions are regarded as offensive.


  1. Encourage an environment that values diversity. There must be vision and commitment to the ideal of valuing diversity demonstrated by an underlying respect toward everyone in the organization.


  1. Recognize that incidents of workplace hostility tend to get worse over time if they are not addressed. For example, remarks that might first seem to be merely in mildly bad taste can eventually escalate into full-fledged sexist or otherwise mean-spirited harassment.


Learning to deal with workplace anger issues is critical to creating a workplace that is comfortable, and therefore productive, for employees. An all too common reaction and one that creates bigger problems down the road, is shrugging off such incidents. Instead, business owners should respond to incidents of workplace anger and hostility promptly and decisively.


The whole workplace ill likely be watching, looking for some signal about whether management takes such transgressions seriously, or whether it implicitly gives the green light to further incidents.


  1. Learn to recognize the symptoms of workplace anger, and try to provide employees with constructive avenues to express frustrations and .or concerns.


  1. Monitor workplace culture to ensure that it does not provide fertile ground for unwanted behavior.


  1. Make sure you have all the facts before confronting an employee with a charge of workplace discrimination or otherwise unprofessional behavior. This is especially true if the identity of the transgressor is in any doubt. 


  1. Make sure that your own actions and deeds are a good model for your employee.


  1. Recognize that your primary imperative is not to change an employee’s mindset about other coworkers, but rather to ensure that the employee does not engage in offensive behavior in his or her interactions with coworkers or customers.  A consultant says, “We won’t change what a person says at a bar, after work, but we can impact how he carries out his job in his workplace; we won’t change attitudes, but we can mange behaviors, and that’s your responsibility as an employer.”

Bernard Taiwo

I am Management strategist, Editor and Publisher.

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Tue Feb 16 , 2021
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