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 other less dramatic ways that can nonetheless have a tremendously negative impact on a business by producing an environment marked by poor or nonexistent 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," wrote Andrea Adams in Personnel Management. "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 small businesses that utilize employees are confronted with the challenge of addressing and correcting problem workers who behave in an angry or hostile manner toward 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 small 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," wrote Joseph D. Levesque, author of The Human Resource Problem-Solver's Handbook. "They come to us in all forms, divergent experiences and backgrounds, and in remarkably unique psychological makeup. Some are quite stable in their values, lifestyles, 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 actions 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. "One nasty crack that receives minimal attention from management can get half your work force stewing, not only creating low morale and an unpleasant work environment, but also severely cutting productivity," wrote Robert McGarvey in Entrepreneur .

Small 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.


Workplace hostility can often be traced to attitudes that have little to do with the current employment situation in which workers find themselves. Deep-seated feelings of hostility toward other people because of their gender, skin color, sexual orientation, political beliefs, or other factors are often firmly in place long before the person begins working at your company. Often, the small 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 sometimes 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:

Of course, sometimes a distinction must be made between legitimate and illegitimate catalysts of workplace anger. For example, an employee may express great anger over a negative performance review even though the appraisal was conducted fairly and honestly. Small business owners and managers cannot jettison basic principles of management simply to avoid making one of their employees angry.

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. Small 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, may exhibit behavior that is more obviously troubling. Following are a range of behaviors that may signal a need for intervention:

"BULLYING" Explicit workplace violence, sexual harassment, and episodes of discrimination garner the most headlines and receive the bulk of attention from consultants because of their potential legal impact on business enterprises. But researchers contend that simple bullying behavior may be a greater threat to business health and productivity than any of the above-mentioned problems. Sometimes bullying takes place between employees, but it often is most evident in supervisor-worker relationships, in which one person is perceived to wield greater power. "Bullying is not just the problem of an individual, however, but, where it exists, of the organization and its culture as a whole," stated Andrea Adams in Personnel Management. "Whether it is a bully's persistent intimidation or their devious efforts to make a colleague appear professionally incompetent, these menacing tactics can be difficult to identify." She also notes that organization bullying is often disguised by euphemisms that avoid calling the behavior what it really is. "In America employee abuse, as it is called, is also referred to as 'workplace trauma,' " wrote Adams. "It has been identified in research carried out by one psychologist in the USA as a more crippling and devastating problem for both staff and employers than all the other work-related stresses put together. There are always those who will put forward the argument that the making of snide remarks or jokes at other people's expense is 'a part of human nature,' but office banter which is not really designed to offend is undoubtedly different to the persistent downgrading of people by any individual in a position of power."

Adams noted that confronting bullies about their behavior is often difficult: "Where bullying exists and someone is willing to tackle it, the bully will have to be addressed in some way and prevailed on to change. The way in which they see themselves will rarely tally with the view of those who are placed under attack." Small business owners and managers, however, should stand fast. Bullying behavior generally does not take place in a vacuum; other employees are usually aware of the situation, and they should be consulted. Finally, owners seeking to eliminate bullying behavior need to make it clear that anyone who is the victim of bullying tactics will receive their full support.

PEER CONFLICT Another common cause of workplace anger and hostility is peer conflict. Unlike instances of bullying, wherein one employee makes a conscious decision to engage in behavior that is hurtful or uncomfortable for another employee, peer conflict is characterized by mutual feelings of animosity toward the other individual. "Peer conflicts are typically caused by personality or perception differences, moodiness, impatience, or sensitive emotional states such as jealousy, annoyance, and embarrassment," wrote Levesque. "When these rivalries evolve into skirmishes or outbursts, the conflict erupts and people are damaged. Since work relies heavily on the ability of people to interact in a cooperative and harmonious fashion, conflict between employees represents a serious breakdown of those two vital ingredients to effective work relationships."

According to management theorist Peter Drucker, managers can pursue one of the following routes when attempting to resolve peer conflicts:

  1. Convince both workers to accept a mutually agreeable view or agreement about the issue that was the cause of the conflict.
  2. Support the position of one employee and reject the position of the other.
  3. Make your own decision about the issue and force both people to comply with your perception.

"What is important for the manager to keep in perspective," wrote Levesque, "is that the problem belongs to those in conflict and only they can resolve it, but they will need someone to help—you."

Small business owners who find themselves mediating a peer conflict should avoid taking sides (especially if both workers' views have merit), provide an objective viewpoint, keep the discussion from bogging down in tangents or name-calling, and help each worker to understand the perspective of the other. Finally, the small business owner's overriding concern should be to explicitly restate his or her expectations of staff performance, including the ways in which staff members should behave toward one another.


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 small business owner with no alternative but to 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 small business enterprises or employees are alike. Researchers agree, however, that there 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 small 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.
  2. 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," wrote Charlene Marmer Solomon in Personnel Journal .
  3. Recognize that incidents of workplace hostility tend to get worse over time if they are not addressed. For example, remarks that might at first seem to be merely in mildly bad taste can eventually escalate into fullfledged racist, 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," wrote McGarvey." An all-too-common reaction, and one that often creates bigger problems down the road, is shrugging off such incidents." Instead, business owners should respond to incidents of workplace anger or hostility promptly and decisively. The whole workforce will 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.
  4. Learn to recognize the symptoms of workplace anger, and try to provide employees with constructive avenues to express frustrations and/or concerns.
  5. Monitor workplace culture to ensure that it does not provide fertile ground for unwanted behavior.
  6. 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.
  7. Make sure that your own actions and deeds are a good model for your employees.
  8. Recognize that your primary imperative is not to change an employee's mindset about minorities, women, or other co-workers, but rather to ensure that the employee does not engage in offensive behavior in his or her interactions with co-workers or customers. "We won't change what a person says at a bar, after work, but we can impact how he carries out his job in the workplace," one consultant told Entrepreneur. "We won't change attitudes, but we can manage behaviors—and that's your responsibility as an employer."


Small business owners should also be aware of the challenges of managing their own anger in the workplace. Entrepreneurship brings with it a host of responsibilities and pressures that can make it difficult for them to manage strong emotions such as anger. But it is important for small business owners to handle their anger in an effective manner. "Expressing anger can be constructive when your true intent is to maintain, reestablish, or restore a positive relationship with the person who has offended you," wrote Eugene Raudsepp in Machine Design. "When done properly, constructive confrontations assure future harmony, better performance, and improved productivity…. When confronting the person who sparked your anger, don't underestimate the value of courtesy. Express your feelings in a reasonable, calm and controlled way. Back your statements with specifics. State the problem as you see it and then give the other party a chance to express his or her side. Listen, empathize, and try to understand what caused the conflict. Make it clear it's the behavior, not the person, that caused the problem."


Braverman, Mark. Preventing Workplace Violence: A Guide for Employers and Practitioners. Sage, 1999.

Levesque, Joseph D. The Human Resource Problem-Solver's Handbook. McGraw-Hill, 1992.

McGarvey, Robert. "Foul Play: Battling Hostilities in the Workplace." Entrepreneur. October 1997.

McShulskis, Elaine. "Workplace Anger: A Growing Problem." HRMagazine. December 1996.

Meyer, Pat. "Preventing Workplace Violence Starts with Recognizing Warning Signs and Taking Action." Nation's Restaurant News. February 28, 2000.

Neville, Haig. "Workplace Violence Prevention Strategies." Memphis Business Journal. September 8, 2000.

Solomon, Charlene Marmer. "Keeping Hate Out of the Workplace." Personnel Journal. July 1992.

SEE ALSO: Workplace Violence

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