Cover Story

A "nine-to-fiver" slams her keyboard and shouts profanity when her computer freezes up. A construction worker notices the oil is low in the forklift but continues to drive it until it overheats and can't be used. A manager chews out an employee, then has to duck to avoid the guy's left hook.

A regular day in working America?

For many workers, in a range of jobs, income and education levels, the workplace is a hotbed of stress and hostility. According to a recent phone survey of 1,305 American employees performed by Integra Realty Resources, stress leads to physical violence in one in 10 work environments. And almost half of those surveyed said yelling and verbal abuse is common in their workplaces.

Dubbed "desk rage" by the popular media--and known to psychologists as counterproductive or deviant workplace behavior--this behavior includes acts of aggression, hostility, rudeness and physical violence. A report in Compensation and Working Conditions by George Gray and Phyllis Myers of Virginia Commonwealth University documents the problem: In 1996, more than 18,500 nonfatal assaults occurred at work. In 1998, more than 700 homicides occurred at work. According to Lynn Jenkins of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, between 5 percent and 10 percent of these homicides are committed by a co-worker and between 8 percent and 10 percent of assaults are by co-workers.

Meanwhile, rudeness, hostility and theft have also become a common occurrence in America's work environments. Researchers at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina found that more than half of 1,500 workers interviewed said they had lost time at work worrying about rude behavior directed toward them. A third admitted to intentionally lowering their commitment to their work because of this rudeness.

The cost of workplace violence to employers is estimated to be between $6.4 billion and $36 billion in lost productivity, diminished image, insurance payments and increased security.

Growing attention to the problem

Counterproductive behavior is not just work stress--it's caused by stress, says Paul Spector, PhD, professor of industrial/organizational psychology at the University of South Florida.

"Anything that leads to negative emotions like boredom or anxiety can be a trigger," he says. Lack of control can also lead to counterproductive behavior, he notes.

Indeed, in the Integra survey, one out of every 10 workers said workplace stress is a major problem for them. And nearly a quarter reported being driven to tears by workplace stress. Half said they skip lunch routinely to get their work done. One in eight workers noted that overcrowded working conditions contribute to their stress.

Some literature shows that employees who work in cubicles, for example, are subject to more noise and may be more stressed. But Spector notes that sometimes cubicle environments can be helpful because people talk to each other and that might alleviate boredom. Meanwhile, factories tend to be noisy, yet those types of environments don't seem to increase employee anxiety, he adds.

The phenomenon of counterproductive behavior isn't new, but has been getting increased attention in the last five years. "The media influence can be good," says Spector. "It might make companies pay attention to it."

Recognizing the need to decrease employee stress, some companies are offering flexible work hours and increased benefits, which can certainly alleviate some problems. Others are tapping psychologists' expertise to set up wellness programs, social support and workshops teaching anger management and positive assertiveness to help employees learn to reduce the expression of negative emotion, according to Susan Burroughs, PhD, of Roosevelt University, Chicago/Schaumburg, Ill.

Burroughs also says that companies could be well served by "cyber-venting pages" on Intranet pages that allow employees to anonymously vent their frustrations and management to get a feel for the mood of the workplace.

But what counterproductive workplace behavior comes down to, she says, is individual differences in personality and coping styles. "Stress is one of many potential triggers for aggressive responses in the workplace."

Personality screenings

Two industrial psychologists at the University of Tennessee--Michael McIntyre, PhD, and Lawrence James, PhD--conduct research on the personality that underlies counterproductive workplace behavior. They contend that people with a particular personality type--hostile, paranoid, prone to feeling victimized--are more predisposed to engage in counterproductive behavior than others.

McIntyre admits that most employees engage in indirect behaviors, such as not showing up for work, being late for meetings, talking about people behind their backs, trying to undermine supervisors' authority or yelling at co-workers.

McIntyre and James think that prescreening potential employees before they are hired is the best way to avoid aggressive or counterproductive situations in the workplace.

"You can wait for a pattern of behaviors on the job," says McIntyre. "But then you're somewhat stuck with the person."

The difficulty in identifying aggressive people in the hiring process is getting people to describe themselves honestly or admit problems, says McIntyre. He and James have developed a new tool, the Conditional Reasoning Test of Aggression, that uses multiple choice, inductive reasoning problems to assess personality. The test-taker answers reasoning questions, rather than questions about her or himself.

"The answers are built so that one appears logical to aggressive people and one appears logical to nonaggressive people," he says. For example, a sample question:

"American cars have gotten better in the last 15 years. American car makers started to build better cars when they began to lose business to the Japanese. Many American buyers thought that foreign cars were better made. Which of the following is the most logical conclusion based on the above?

A. America was the world's largest producer of airplanes 15 years ago.

B. Swedish car makers lost business in America 15 years ago.

C. The Japanese knew more than Americans about building good cars 15 years ago.

D. American car makers built cars to wear out 15 years ago, so they could make a lot of money selling parts."

Answer "D" reveals a person's proclivity toward retaliation over reconciliation, as well as a person's tendency to be cynical or suspicious of other people's motives and actions, the researchers say. Aggressive people see the world in different ways, explains McIntyre. "They see mistreatment where others don't. There's a fixation on power and respect," he notes.

Whether caused by person or environment, counterproductive workplace behavior is widespread.

"When we do studies, I'm always amazed at how many things people say they do," says Spector.

More research is needed on these types of behaviors because they might lead to serious aggression and violence, says Burroughs.

"Psychologists play a large role in research and treatment in this area."