Professors probe behavior at its worst
    in the workplace

    By Rick Uhlmann
    Illustrations by Mark Bleckley

Having an infuriated high school basketball coach launch a chair at you, or a restaurant supervisor who manages through intimidation and shame can have life-altering consequences.

Those behaviors are part of what influenced two professors in Clemson’s College of Business to better understand what prompts abusive behavior by those in positions of authority, and they’ve spent a good part of their careers looking for answers.

Kristin Scott and Tom Zagenczyk, associate professors in the business school’s Department of Management, say disruptive, gossipy, retaliatory and bullying behaviors often associated with adolescents are all too common in the workplace, and they exact a heavy toll on businesses and their employees.

“You’d like to think in the 21st century people have evolved and learned to work side-by-side in a civil manner, but that frequently isn’t the case,” says Scott. “That kind of disruptive behavior is more prevalent than most people realize, and it exacts a toll on business productivity and employees’ emotional well-being.”

Scott and Zagenczyk are Clemson’s resident experts on workplace dysfunction. Whether it’s a boss who bullies, employees who retaliate, work-family conflict issues or snubbed co-workers, these two have collaborated on extensive organizational behavior research and its impact on workers and their employers.

In the last decade, their research surveyed several thousand employed adults through online questionnaires and other means. Most of the research involved field studies within organizations where employees were surveyed across multiple points in time, usually over three- to four-month periods.

The two researchers have seen and heard it all about strained relationships between employees, or with their bosses, through their academic endeavors and corporate experiences.

“There are many dynamics that make it difficult for some to play nice in the workplace sand box,” says Zagenczyk. “But there is usually an underlying influence that’s causing behavior problems with the bad boss or disruptive employee. It’s often a function of what’s going on at home, and the fallout hits them.”

  • “Being in corporate human resources for a number of years, I was often subjected to people who exhibited bad behavior. It actually drove me to want to further understand why adults, many of them professionals, resorted to that kind of behavior in the workplace.”
    — Kristin Scott
    Associate Professor of Management

Motivated by Experience

Zagenczyk and Scott credit their own personal experiences for their involvement in researching workplace issues.

“Being in corporate human resources for a number of years, I was often subjected to people who exhibited bad behavior,” Scott says. “It actually drove me to want to further understand why adults, many of them professionals, resorted to that kind of behavior in the workplace. Those kinds of issues often fell on my lap and, as an HR professional, I not only had to sort through them but was also left cleaning up the mess. In a way, it sort of inspired me to want to figure out how to prevent it from happening.”

A catalyst for Zagenczyk’s desire to better understand petulant behavior by adults occurred at an earlier age.

“Basketball was my sport as an adolescent,” he says. “I was on our high school basketball team in Pennsylvania and had a coach who attended Bob Knight basketball camps to learn coaching strategies. At one of our first practices, he challenged our mental toughness and in the process went on a profanity-laced tirade, then threw a basketball that broke a ball rack, and threw a chair through a window.

“In a way, it fascinated me how a grown man could exhibit such poor leadership and behavior that he would lash out at a bunch of teenagers by swearing and throwing things at them. Though he didn’t motivate me as a basketball player, it did provoke me to better understand that kind of behavior.”

A Costly Epidemic

Scott and Zagenczyk will be the first to tell you that the prevalence of discord in the workplace comes with a price tag.

The Workplace Bullying Institute calls abuse among employees “an American epidemic.” In a national survey conducted in 2014, the institute found:

  • 27 percent of employees have current or past direct experience with abusive conduct at work.
  • 72 percent of the American public is aware of workplace bullying. • Bosses are still in the majority of bullies.
  • 72 percent of employers deny, discount, encourage, rationalize or defend the abuse.

Another study conducted by CPP Global Human Capital Report in 2008 found that U.S. employees spend nearly three hours a week dealing with conflict. That study estimated conflict issues amounted to approximately $359 billion in paid hours (based on $17.95 hourly earnings), or the equivalent of 385 million working days in a year.

The study also showed 25 percent of employees said avoiding conflict led to sickness or absence from work. Equally alarming, nearly 10 percent reported workplace conflict led to project failure, and more than one-third said conflict resulted in someone leaving the company.

“There’s no question, bad behavior by a boss or between employees is costing organizations billions of dollars each year,” says Zagenczyk. “A bad apple on the team can diminish productivity, prompt sick days and even lead to turnover, which is costly in hiring and training replacements.”

Through all of her years of research, Scott is still surprised at the prevalence of abuse among workforces.

“I am still taken aback by how these behavior topics resonate with people and how widespread they are. So many work cultures allow this to happen,” Scott says. “As adults, we know that fear, intimidation and degradation is not a successful approach to managing people, but it goes unrestrained in many organizations.”

She says certain business sectors, such as the health care and financial industries, are more susceptible to abusive cultures. “The frequent face-to-face interactions are more prevalent and consequently more prone to stress, so these industries generally see abusive behavior more than others. However, when it comes to bullying, the most vulnerable sectors are the hospitality industry and education.”

Like most of us, the two researchers have first-hand experiences with conflict in the workplace, both during their undergraduate years. “When I was 19, I grew a beard while working in a bank,” says Zagenczyk. “Though the bank didn’t have a rule against beards, my supervisor hated them. So, he made me change bathroom urinal deodorizer cakes until I shaved the beard.”

Though Zagenczyk held out a week and a half before shaving, he did learn a lesson. “I learned there were informal rules and that if you don’t adhere to norms in certain cultures, there are consequences.”

In college, Scott worked at a mom-and-pop restaurant where she had a boss who was nicknamed “Satan.”

“His leadership style was to humiliate and shame people to get them to perform,” says Scott. “It was a horrible culture that he had created. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was when one of our servers dropped a pizza on the floor that she was about to serve. She was so scared about how the manager would react, that she served the pizza to the customer. That was an aha moment to me at a young age about how not to manage people.”

  • “There’s no question, bad behavior by a boss or between employees is costing organizations billions of dollars each year. A bad apple on the team can diminish productivity, prompt sick days and even lead to turnover, which is costly in hiring and training replacements.”
    — Tom Zagenczyk
    Associate Professor of Management

No Silver Bullet

Zagenczyk says many external factors contribute to unprofessional behavior among co-workers. During the economic downturn, for example, cutbacks prompted people to do more with less, causing stress and resulting in friction among co-workers and their superiors. But he cautions about rushing to judgment on a person because of how they act at work.

“We tend to attribute a behavior as just who these people are. Frequently, behavior is a function of what’s going on at home or with someone’s supervisor at work,” says Zagenczyk. “Don’t automatically assume a person behaving badly is a jerk or has a dysfunctional personality. Often, it’s extraneous factors like relationships, culture or climate that affect someone’s attitude. But for many it’s easier to believe the behavior is a function of who they are.”

Zagenczyk is quick to point out that a supervisor’s abusive behavior may be related more to deep-seated issues, than to current problems at home or with workplace relationships. A study he and Scott conducted showed bosses who hollered, or were generally considered abusive by their co-workers, were subjected to bad behavior by caregivers during their adolescence.

“In that study we asked supervisory employees how often before 18 years of age they were subjected to yelling or insults. The findings showed supervisors who reported being undermined growing up tended to have subordinates who said their supervisor exhibited abusive tendencies.”

Zagenczyk says negative emotions experienced during adolescence don’t just go away. There is generally fallout that is manifested in adulthood.

“Displaced aggression is very common among those whose adolescence was tumultuous,” he says. “People who have aggressive, demeaning parents believe that type of behavior is acceptable and model after them. Aggressing against others, such as co-workers, is a convenient way to release negative emotions.”

Scott adds that tension between employees is often a byproduct of what’s at stake. “Careers are livelihoods, and for many it defines who they are, so there is a lot at stake,” she says. “It seems people have a need for control when they have things at risk. So, if things don’t play out right, it tends to invoke fear, anger and frustration, which can lead to retaliation in the workplace.”

Zagenczyk and Scott say skewed work-life balance also creates stress, which can lead to retaliatory behavior against co-workers. One study they conducted showed that women are more likely than men to vent their frustration over work-life imbalances at work.

“The study found women experiencing work-family conflicts are more likely to respond negatively at the root of the perceived problem because they tend to be more protective of their family role than men,” says Scott. “Men, on the other hand, tend to be more protective of the work role and are less likely to blame the employer for their inability to meet family or personal obligations.”

Scott says there’s no silver bullet to ending abusive and obstructive attitudes in the workplace. And if organizations allow a toxic culture to exist, they will pay a price for it.

“There are ways to address how people deal with stress to help mitigate the negative fallout, and one key factor is a person’s emotional intelligence,” she says. “People can be trained, through meditation and other ways, to calm their minds by focusing on the present, not the past. It can help bring emotions under control so you can think through your actions. However, it doesn’t work for everyone. If you don’t have the social skills, or have personal issues, the problem may be harder to overcome.”

  • ” . . . we asked supervisory employees how often before 18 years of age they were subjected to yelling or insults. The findings showed supervisors who reported being undermined growing up tended to have subordinates who said their supervisor exhibited abusive tendencies.”
    —Tom Zagenczyk

Perception vs. Reality

Zagenczyk says one of the catalysts for workplace discord can be differences in generational values. When each generation can put aside its biases of the other and see the talents and strengths each brings to the organization, the less friction there will be.

A perception that strikes a nerve among millennials, Zagenczyk said, is that they are narcissistic and entitled. Zagenczyk doesn’t buy it. “There’s no empirical evidence of differences between them and other generations in the workforce,” he says. “However, stories are written about them being different, so people think it’s true. Millennials are very aware of those perceptions and will tell you they’re willing to work just as hard as anyone. It seems they come into the workforce with strikes against them because judgments have already been made about them.

Being respectful to your co-workers is a good start at creating a sense of decorum at work. Scott and Zagenczyk suggest a number of things worth considering to make work more tolerable and to better understand why people act out.

  • Don’t jump to conclusions about people by making assumptions that their behavior is a function of their personality. They may not be the jerk you think they are.
  • There’s a lot at stake in your workplace, and you don’t always have control. Some things have to be emotionally let go so that they don’t negatively affect your personal or professional life.
  • People in managerial positions can be a solution to a toxic work environment by creating a culture of fairness, tolerance, acceptance and support.
  • Because so much time is spent at work, it becomes part of one’s identity. It has implications way beyond workplace. If bosses aren’t sensitive to that, it can have dramatic implications and set the tone for how everyone else acts.
  • Supervisors can make a difference to someone with a bad home life. Work can become a respite for those people, but it’s on the boss to create that kind of a culture.

Rick Uhlmann is the director of media relations/public information in the College of Business.

Do you have a story of a dysfunctional workplace or a bad boss to share? Share it below in the “Leave a reply” section.

7 replies
  1. Glory says:

    Great article! I’ve told new grads many times to seek a great boss and coworkers in a first or second job. This will create a benchmark for you for the rest of your career regarding how other people should behave in the workplace. Still, there are more subtle workplace bullies out there than bullies who rant and yell.
    I became so concerned about the negative effects of workplace bullying on the bullies’ targets – I wrote a book to help the targets of bullying figure out how to get it to stop and to end their stress.
    “Not All Bullies Yell and Throw Things: How to Survive a Subtle Workplace Bully” is available at Amazon at this link: http://bit.ly/1U7k8dW

  2. Condo Whistleblower says:

    Please tell me if you feel this is a dysfunctional workplace. I worked for an organization that managed a resident community that also has a homeowner’s association governance. There are 1,500 residents residing in condominiums (homeowners/renters). The organization employs less than 30 individuals and many of them are blood-related. At the time, there were 2 sets of fathers and daughters, 2 sisters, their adult children, and in-laws and other non-related employees. I witnessed that two of the employees would consume alcohol (wine) at their desks towards the close of the day (4:30 p.m.) although some employees were still present in the building until 9 p.m. I was shocked the first time that I saw it but just kept doing my job. However, over time, I depended upon both of these employees for deadlines and projects, I became upset because there seemed to be less attention to getting the work done, and more on the “happy hour”. The manager also represented himself as the “human resources” person. I send an email to him stating my concerns about the alcohol consumption, however, he replies in writing that he has “No issues or concerns with it”, however, he will states that he will address the timeliness of deadlines with the coworker. The wine drinking goes on in the office for many years, also reported to me by two other employees. I had also spoken directly to another supervisor as well as the manager about many work-related problems, yet nothing changed or improved. After other incidences and continuing problems, including bullying by the manager and a coworker, I submitted my resignation and file a “toxic work environment” complaint with the board. The residents were very upset and petitioned for me to stay. They even had a meeting with the manager, and he asked me directly if I would reconsider and stay on. I told him that I wanted to talk to the board to let them know of the problems that I was experiencing, hoping that they would help me. I requested a meeting with the 10-member board of the homeowner’s association. The association attorney also attends the meeting and later I am also interviewed at work by yet another homeowner’s association attorney (without the presence of my attorney). I inform the entire board of the alcohol consumption in the office, which violated the personnel policy manual with termination upon 1st offense. I also bring to their attention many other company and personnel violations, including excessive and lewd profanity used in the office, fabricated stories about my work performance, pornography downloaded on my computer (never found out who did that, but blamed on the cleaning ladies who do not have computer passwords), my office desk tampered with, excessive discourtesy, sabotage and interference of my work, and other violations. After the meeting, I rescind my resignation because of the tremendous support of the residents and that I thought the board would respond favorably to comply with policies. However, the 10-member board, fully aware of the alcohol consumption allowed by the manager, and aware all of the other violations responded, “No action taken”. Nothing was done to hold any of the employees, including the manager accountable. The manager is extremely angry and screams at me in closed-door meetings several times. He tells me that all of the residents will “Think ill of me” if I stay and that they will not accept my letter to rescind my resignation. He tells me that, “Good business practice dictates that we not accept your letter to rescind your resignation”. I also felt retaliated against for reporting violations. I was also screamed at by the wine drinking coworker in front of another employee for reporting her to the attorney. It only got worse the more that I brought concerns and violations to co-workers and to those in management. One coworker even said, “I feel that you are always going to Daddy and telling on me”. (And they were not even blood-related!) I was totally dumbfounded, shocked and disgusted that a manager who also represented himself as the human resources person would allow alcohol consumption in the office, even though it violated policy and for me created a toxic work environment. There was a terrible sense of arrogance, entitlement, and rudeness by the one employee. There were constant belittling, demeaning and degrading insults by both the manager and this coworker towards me. It was one of the most unprofessional, unethical, uncivil and dysfunctional environments that I had ever worked for.

  3. Dave Brown says:

    Are we talking about perceived abuse or real abuse? Holding someone unconditionally accountable for meeting reasonable objectives is not abuse. However, an unmotivated employee would probably call it abuse. A leadership team that has a unwavering commitment to meeting a very necessary objective may be perceived as abusive when they hold their associates accountable for not meeting end goals and interim goals. This article seems to create a ready-made excuse for an employee that is performing badly due to a lack of commitment. Additionally, I believe the general premise is harmful to our graduates that read the article. For that reason, I am disappointed to see it in the Clemson World.

    • RJ Breen says:

      I read the same article and didn’t see what you’re seeing. The researchers make it pretty clear in defining unacceptable behavior with words like bullying, humiliate, shame, yelling and insults. Intelligent adults don’t hold one another accountable for performance by yelling, shaming and bullying. If the employer-employee dynamic requires yelling for work to be accomplished, either the manager or the employee needs to be replaced and ownership needs to address its hiring practices.

  4. Moh Ramdhan says:

    I think a company built with fear will not make a loyal employee,
    if the worker is not loyal to his company, certainly the company will not be able to grow.

  5. Judy Dixon says:

    I have worked in the software industry for over 29 years and have witnessed and been on the receiving end of bullying in the work place. I am glad to see Clemson recognize the existence of it and try to do something about it. However, I believe it would be naive to believe it can be eliminated. I am sad to say it is too tightly woven into the fabric of our professional society today to be history tomorrow. Given that it is the job of Clemson University and other Universities to prepare young people for the work force, it would be crucial to speak of it in the classroom and teach the next workforce how to better deal with it when it happens, because it will happen. It is probably one the biggest challenges facing employees today. I know it has been a big part of my professional life and that came as a big surprise to me.

  6. Faye Georgeo says:

    Two years ago my company had cutbacks and now I am contracting as none of the companies want to hire perm IT professionals. I have been at this engagement for a year, and the contract will be over soon. I am 63 years old (grad 1975) and a Senior QA analyst with over 15 years experience. Because I was a contractor however, when mgmt got stressed they took it out on the contractors. In this past year I was yelled at and belittled numerous times, to the point where other contractors saw it and were horrified. I just wanted you to add this dilemma to your studies, that companies are treating contractors very badly because they know they can. We need the job and there is no one to protect us as we are not perm. It has been a very sad experience.You should ask other contractors their experience. Note that I have been in the workforce for years, so you need to ask folks like me, who have not come up in the ranks with this behavior.

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