Are Workplaces Feeling The Love This Valentine’s Day?

As Valentine’s Day approaches, employers and employees nationwide will be barraged with reminders about the prevalence and pitfalls of office romance.  However, some companies are facing an entirely different problem: their workers have lost that loving feeling and the consequences can be dire.

A tight job market, combined with stagnant wages and less upward mobility can leave workers feeling frustrated.  In this environment, animosity between coworkers stemming from personality conflicts, differing work styles, or competition can be amplified, resulting in a wide variety of workplace problems, from lost productivity to increased and open hostility, according to the workplace experts at global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

“It is no secret that as the economy continues to recover from a deep recession many workplaces are understaffed and overworked.  With the pace of hiring still relatively slow, a lot of workers feel stuck and may be more sensitive to the negative aspects of their jobs,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

“It might be a stretch to call workplaces a ‘powder keg,’ but managers should be on the lookout for signs of worker hostility and be prepared to act.  Often in situations where managers are aware of a problem between two or more coworkers, they merely look the other way, letting the employees work it out amongst themselves.  This may work in some situations, but in others, this hands-off approach can have disastrous results,” said Challenger.

In a worst-case scenario, the unresolved conflict could lead to violence.  The British Workplace Behaviour Survey released at the Festival of Social Sciences in London in October 2011 found that 40 percent of respondents experienced denigration and disrespect, which included being the target of shouting or a lost temper, and 6 percent of employees experienced violence.

“Workplace violence resulting from animosity and conflict represents the extreme.  The more pervasive problem resulting from animosity and conflict is workplace incivility, which can take the form of nasty or demeaning notes, child-like treatment, and unreasonable requests.  These incivilities can create a toxic office environment and the results on the bottom line can be just as devastating as violent encounters,” said Challenger

A 2010 poll from the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 35 percent of the US workforce report being bullied at work, while 15 percent witness it.

An article in the USA Today cited statistics from the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting in August 2011 which found that workplace incivility is on the rise. Researchers found that 75 to 80 percent of workers have experienced incivility, which includes insults and rudeness. The same article cites The Civility In America 2011 poll which stated 43 percent of the 1,000 respondents experienced incivility at work and 38 percent believe the workplace is increasingly disrespectful.

So, what is the impact of all this workplace incivility on employers?  A study by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Baltimore, in which 65 percent of those surveyed witnessed uncivil behavior at the office, found that 70 percent of those witness incivility contemplated changing jobs; 63 percent said they felt less of a commitment to the organization; 37 percent decreased their effort at work; and 9 percent lost work time by calling in sick.

“Of course, employers cannot really mandate that co-workers like each other.  What they can do is foster open communication, mutual respect, and civility. Some have tried to build cohesive workplaces through team-building exercises and guest speakers touting the latest acronym-based behavior-changing model.  While some of these programs prove to be effective, many induce more yawns and eye-rolling than actual behavior change,” said Challenger.

“Relationships can sour under the normal stresses that occur in the workplace and from sharing the same space eight to ten hours a day, five days a week.  In companies or work teams that encourage openness, mutual respect, and dealing with issues as they arise, such flare-ups are harmless.  Companies or managers that ignore the problem, believing that time, not communication, heals all wounds, create an environment where the animosity will fester,” said Challenger.

Some managers may, in fact, be the source of animosity between co-workers by practicing favoritism, encouraging excessive competition, or allowing office politics.

“These issues must be addressed from the top down.  Solutions may range from the equivalent of couples counseling to something as simple as encouraging reconciliation through public displays of affection — not in the romantic sense, of course, but in an attempt to mend fences by acknowledging each other’s contribution to the common good of the company.

Challenger provided the following advice for employers and employees on creating civil and animosity-free workplaces:

Socialize with your coworkers.  Employees who work with passion and drive innovation are most likely to engage in close personal relationships at work.  This does not necessarily mean you need to go out every night with your fellow employees.  However, engaging in non-work-related activities and conversation will help establish mutual respect and common bonds.

Check your problems at the door.  No one likes to be belittled or yelled at in front of others.  If you have a problem with a fellow worker, take time to cool down and then have a constructive conversation with the individual in a private office or conference room.  If the conflict has elevated to a point where civil conversation seems impossible then seek a manager or human resources representative to mediate the interaction.

Keep an open flow of communication.  A major cause of resentment may come from workers who feel they are not being heard.  Communication is critical to any interoffice relationships, so it is important to establish an open door policy for workers to air their grievances.  Allow employees to submit written suggestions and call a follow-up meeting to discuss any issues.

Bring a piece of home to the office.  Maybe you are having trouble motivating yourself to finish that last report in your windowless, white cubical.  Since you spend most of your time at the workplace, it is important to feel comfortable.  A recent study found that a depersonalized workplace environment was a leading cause of workplace anger.  Bring in some posters for your office walls.  Put some flowers on your desk or in a common area.  Your coworkers will thank you for it.

Learn to deal with people you do not like.  Unfortunately, you will meet people within your organization with whom you do not get along.  Since you most likely cannot just ignore these people, you will have to minimize any tension that may occur.  Keep your interactions brief, to the point and completely professional.  If the problem persists, talk to your supervisor to see if you can rearrange your work to avoid this person entirely.

Discourage office gossip and politics.  Some companies have gone so far as to establish written policy banning office gossip with repeat offenders asked to leave.  That may seem extreme, but these employers understand how gossip and politics can undermine office harmony and create a toxic workplace.  Some have suggested that one major step toward repairing office harmony would be to eliminate the blind cc option on office email.  It epitomizes the type of behind-the-back maneuvering that creates office animosity.

Take a vacation.  Sometimes the best remedy for finding happiness at work is to step away from it.  Expedia.com’s 2011 Vacation Deprivation Survey found that Americans get 14 paid vacation days a year but only use 12.  This is up from 2006 when American’s dismissed 4 vacation days.  Although, workers do not always take those trips they have been planning, A few days away from the office could substantially decrease stress levels.

It’s the little things that count.  Cleaning up after yourself in the break room, making the next pot of coffee when you take the last cup, and replacing the container on the water cooler when you notice it is empty will go a long way toward creating a civil workplace.

But do not forget the big things.  Give coworkers credit where credit is due and, conversely, do not take credit for projects on which you did not contribute.  Do not miss deadlines.  Show up on time and prepared for meetings.  Respond in a timely manner to requests – even if you cannot deliver right away, at least acknowledge that you received the request and provide a time frame in which you will be able to respond.

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