Workplace anger and hostility often manifest 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 most commonly written about forms 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, sagging 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 that fail to recognize and deal effectively with the problem of workplace anger may end up with even more serious problems with which to deal. Inappropriate displays of anger can lead to all sorts of undesirable outcomes and, in the most serious cases, a company may even be legally liable if they allow a hostile environment to persist.

Of course, many small businesses will never be confronted with the challenge of addressing and correcting problem workers who behave in an angry or hostile manner toward coworkers or customers. This may be because very small firms may not have employees at all. But, even firms with employees often 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.

The problem of angry outbursts is a growing problem in society generally. Robert D. Ramsey writes about the seemingly epidemic levels to which anger in our society has grown in recent years in an article that appeared in the magazine Supervision. He put it this way. "It's a modern day epidemic. Rage rules. On the road. In the airways. At sports events. And increasingly, on the job as well'¦. Anger is a dictator that can control lives and drive behavior. It blots out reason and blurs good judgment. Worst of all, it can lead to dangerous outbursts of violence or other destructive behaviors. Obviously, anger has no legitimate place in any business, office, shop or factory. When it occurs, someone has to see that it doesn't take root or take over the workplace. If managers don't do it, who will?"

Entrepreneurs, like all business leaders, 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 employee who lashes out inappropriately can cause a decline in a company's general morale, can cause friction with colleagues, can cause enough distraction that productivity declines and may even be distracting enough to pose a safety hazard.

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:

  • General harassment, whether sexual or some other form.
  • Favoritism of one employee over another.
  • Rejection (whether arbitrary or for good reason) of a proposal or project in which an employee has a significant emotional investment.
  • Insensitivity by owners or managers.
  • Criticisms of employees in front of staff or clients.
  • Depersonalized workplace environment.
  • Unfair (or tardy) performance appraisals or criticism.
  • Lack of resources for the employee to meet his/her objectives.
  • Inadequate training.
  • Lack of teamwork.
  • Withdrawal of earned benefits.
  • Betrayal of trust extended to manager or owner.
  • Unreasonable demands on employees.
  • Downsizing.
  • Lack of flexibility on part of owner or manager.
  • Poor communication.
  • Feedback is wholly or primarily negative in tone.
  • Absentee leadership (such as instances wherein needed disciplinary action is absent).
  • Micromanagerial environment in which staff decisionmaking opportunities are limited.

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:

  • Sarcastic, irritable, or moody behavior
  • Apathetic and/or inconsistent work performance
  • Prone to making direct or veiled threats
  • Aggressive and antisocial behavior
  • Overreaction to company policies or performance appraisals
  • Touchy relationships with other workers
  • Obsessive involvement and/or emotional attachment to job


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 as great a threat to business health and productivity as are 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 must be seen as a problem of the organization and its culture as a whole. Bullying can take many forms, from persistent, low-key intimidation to devious efforts to make a colleague appear professionally incompetent. These menacing tactics can be difficult to identify and bring to light. It is very important, therefore, to have an avenue through which people feel free and safe to air their concerns about coworkers, supervisors and subordinates. Patterns may emerge which make it more apparent where serious problem lie as long as communications flow reasonably freely. There are always those who will put forward the argument that the making of snide remarks or jokes at another's expense is part of social interaction. However, office banter which is not really designed to offend is recognizably different to the persistent downgrading or undermining of a person by another, particularly if the other is in a position of relative power within the hierarchy.

Confronting bullies about their behavior is often difficult. Where bullying exists the only way to address the matter is through addressing it with the bully and prevailing upon him or her to change. But, since the bully is very likely to see the situation in the same way as the victim(s) of his or her aggression, the first challenge will be to establish that change is needed. Like all human resource problems, the challenge is great. 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 usually caused by differences in personality or perception, moodiness, insensitivity, impatience, or sensitive emotional states such as jealousy, annoyance, and embarrassment. When these rivalries evolve into skirmishes or outbursts, conflict may erupt causing damage to those involved as well as others in the vicinity. 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 the effective working relationship.

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 is the fact that the problem belongs to those in conflict and only they can resolve it. However, when that problem affects the company then it is the manager's job to insist upon and facilitate a resolution.

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 are 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.
  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 full-fledged 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. 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.

  1. 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. An employer will not likely change the attitudes of employees in these matters, but behavior is something that is within the employer's purview and behavior should be managed.


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 the true intent is to maintain, reestablish, or restore a positive relationship with the person who has caused offense. When handled professionally, constructive confrontations assure future harmony, better performance, and improved productivity. The key, of course, is to express anger professionally and as calmly as possible. It helps to be as specific as possible. State the problem as clearly as possible and then give the other party a chance to express his or her side. Listen, and try to understand what caused the conflict. Whenever possible, emphasize that it is the behavior, not the person, that is in question or needs to change.


Hall, John R. "Seminar Provides Tips on Hiring Practices." Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration News. 20 June 2005.

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

Nay, W. Robert. Taking Charge of Anger: How to Resolve Conflict, Sustain Relationships, and Express Yourself without Losing Control. The Guilford Press, 2003

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

Ramsey, Robert D. "Managing Workplace Anger: Your Employees', Your Customers' and Your Own." Supervision. February 2004.

"Two Million People, Many of them Managers, Bullied at Work." Management-Issues, LTD. Available from 7 November 2005.