Incidents involving gunplay make the news. But the far more prevalent source of workplace anxiety? Loaded words.
Violent incidents in which angry workers go on an armed rampage grab headlines and contribute greatly to a sense of unease on the job. In actuality, they're rare -- only about 59 American workers are killed each year by a co-worker, out of a civilian workforce numbering close to 140 million. Furthermore, such incidents appear to be waning. Job-related homicides actually decreased by 18 percent in 1998.
What's really on the rise, though, is what experts are calling "workplace aggression," or "incivility." Acts of workplace aggression usually don't kill or maim, but they do serious damage to the recipient's image, morale and emotional well- being. And such behavior is common.
A study by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health found that nearly half of all office workers said they had been subjected to verbal abuse on the job.
Workplace aggression rarely rises to the level of outright yelling and cursing, though.
According to a 1998 study published in the Journal of Management, the 10 most frequent acts of workplace aggression are:
1. Spreading false rumors
2. Interrupting a person while he or she is speaking
3. Acting in a condescending manner
4. Ridiculing a person's opinions in front of others
5. Failing to return calls or respond to memos
6. Giving the "silent treatment"
7. Engaging in verbal sexual harassment
8. Staring, dirty looks
9. Damning with faint praise
10. Showing up late for meetings run by the target
Taken in isolation, none of the aforementioned actions would be cause for concern. But as part of a pattern of abuse, they can be extremely demoralizing, according to the study's authors.
Why Workplace Aggression Is Increasing
Work is more challenging than ever, thanks in part to the glowing box you're staring into right now. There's also a heck of a lot more of it to do -- blame downsizing for that. Add to this, volatile growing unease over job security. It's this potent mix of insecurity and pressure that fuels the upswing in workplace aggression, according to licensed social worker Deborah Foster, a counselor in the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program at Johns Hopkins.
"I'm definitely seeing far more cases of office rage these days," says Foster. In the first two months after being assigned the task of coordinating workplace violence -- thanks to downsizing -- she dealt with 12 incidents of workplace aggression. "It's mostly verbal threats. The most we've had is someone bumping another person with a cart or tearing a pocket off a uniform," she says.
Although downsizing and layoffs are two very potent elements in the growing trend toward aggression at work, poor management skills also play a big role, she says. Studies show that 60 percent of those engaged in such boorish behavior are either the target's direct supervisor or are at a higher level in the organization than the target.
As an example, Foster tells of a worker whose new boss repeatedly talked down to him and ridiculed him -- fairly aggressive acts themselves. This, in turn, sparked additional hostility on the part of the worker, prompting him to spew verbal hostility to anyone who would listen. A co-worker overheard his tirade and informed the supervisor, who sent the worker to Foster for an immediate evaluation.
"Bullying over a period of time will make a person respond, and respond in a violent manner," she says. Although there's no excuse for making verbal threats at work, she believes there's a lot that managers could do to avoid such a reaction.
"People need to know about changes on an ongoing basis. They need to know what's expected of them," she says. "And they need to be talked to like human beings and treated with respect." She cautions that managers shouldn't let problems fester and should step in immediately at the first sign of trouble.
It's not just the targets of workplace aggression that suffer. Harassment also affects the corporate bottom line, University of North Carolina management professor Christine Pearson said. In a 1998 survey, targets of workplace aggression reported taking the following actions:
-53 percent lost work time worrying about the incident or future interactions.
-28 percent lost work time avoiding the instigator.
-37 percent said their commitment to the organization declined.
-22 percent decreased their amount of effort at work.
-10 percent decreased the number of hours they put in at work.
-46 percent thought about changing jobs.
-12 percent actually changed jobs to avoid the aggressor.
Pearson says organizations tend to make exceptions for people who are of high status or are thought to have some sort of unique competency or talent. But if it's ignored or covered up, aggressiveness in the office can become the norm.
If you are a manager, don't let workplace aggression get out of hand, warns Pearson. She suggests taking the following actions in the wake of reports of inappropriate behavior:
-Don't punish the messenger.
-Don't make excuses for powerful or talented people.
-Don't make excuses for the person just to avoid dealing with the problem.
-Don't look the other way regarding a bully's actions.
-Don't just transfer an employee who really should be fired.
Warning Signs Of Violence
Although acts of violence at work are rare, they are devastating and should be prevented whenever possible. The FBI has developed the following list of indicators that may warn of an impending violent outburst:
-Making direct or veiled threats of harm
-Intimidating, belligerent, harassing, bullying and other inappropriate behaviors
-Numerous conflicts with supervisors and other employees
-Bringing a weapon to work, brandishing a weapon at work, making inappropriate references to guns or expressing a fascination with guns
-Expressing a fascination with incidents of workplace violence, or identifying with or approving of a person involved in such violence
-Statements indicating desperation over family, finances or other problems to point of contemplating suicide
-Drug or alcohol abuse
-Any extreme change in behavior