Can We Defuse A Hostile Work Environment?


Where do I locate information and skills to defuse a hostile and possible explosive work place environment?

In our current situation there is a hostile environment, a toxic waste dump site if you will. It seems to grow at alarming rate, and we want to get rid of this before it grows out further into the facility or before something escalates into a violent episode.

We are lowly hourly employees, who have to cope with this and want so badly to change it; to change the environment to one where you are afraid to go up into the lab for fear of what will find or what will happen next.

Yes, two of us have presented HR with a proposal to blend into 5-minute safety meetings some training techniques for anger management and other useful techniques that have been found in books and on websites. Since we have just gained approval from HR and are scheduled to give our first “retraining talk” Monday. So far two immediate supervisors and our Safety Manager seem to be behind us 100%. This one segment of our team is made up of three very strong personalities–two who seem to want everything done their way and the third that runs with one who shouts the loudest. Each of the three believe that they are “right” and “in charge” There is no teamship, no understanding, and communication is limited to the one who is loudest. This is not a good work environment at all. Gossip, innuendo, backbiting, and finger pointing are rampant.

Two of us have been researching, searching and asking for help, for support and ideas to promote harmony and end to the hostility. I have been searching help on the Internet. Since we are two hourly employees presenting this proposal, we have no financial resources at our disposal at this point. Perhaps that is what impressed out HR Manager thus far. However, we need more training and education to better enable us to destroy this emotional toxic waste dump.




Dear Toxic:

Thank you for the detailed information. I honor you and your colleague for taking personal responsibility to handle the unpleasant issues at work. I hope I can share some thoughts that will help.

1. You are doing what your supervisors and managers should have done long ago. Shame on them if they know of your concerns and have not taken action to rein in the angry, yelling people. Have you considered putting this problem where it belongs–in their area of responsibility? That would be my first suggestion, even though they are apparently very willing to abdicate their responsibility to you.

I would suggest you write a letter or email to your supervisor and manager or to HR, even if you only can get it to them before or right after the first meeting on Monday. In the memo you would restate the problem, as you have discussed it with them. Clarify how upsetting it is and why. Be SURE to say that you are concerned that it will escalate into violence. That is a key liability area and they will notice it!

Then say that you and your colleague have found, through your research, that usually supervisory or managerial intervention is required before serious problems about conflict can be resolved. You could say that you want to be involved, and will continue to work toward a solution, but you would like to ask their support and help with it. You could say that your job status doesn’t give you the right to require appropriate behavior, but a supervisor does have that right. Close by asking them to help you with suggestions for ways to intervene to fix the problem.

2. Why should the other employees respond to the training developed by a co-worker, unless they see a need for it? Has anyone other than you and your colleague expressed concern? If they have, they need to be right up there with you, challenging people to consider a better way to interact at work. If no one else has expressed a concern, then perhaps what is needed is for you and your colleague to let him or her know how you feel.

Before people will want to learn, they need to be aware there is a problem and the nature of the problem. They also need to be ready to change. Since you can’t require it of them, what will make them want to change? I ask that so you and your colleague will think about spending the first session exploring the way things are right now and the negative effect you perceive that it has. Be open and honest about how you feel about things now. Ask them to join with you in working to make the workplace better. You might find they don’t see there is a problem, or they don’t agree that THEY are the problem.

Consider putting together a list before the meeting and asking them to add to it. Before the meeting, if you have the time, put together a list, on one side of a piece of paper or flipchart, of what you are now seeing. Be specific about tones of voice, facial expressions, remarks and so forth, as well who is doing it or saying the things and when. Also list the negative effects of that. Who is feeling the negative effects and why? What does it do to the quality of work, the office environment and to the way people feel? Note what has been said about it.

On the other side, make a list of what you would like to see instead. If you don’t know what you would like to see instead, you don’t know what changes will have to take place–and that is the focus of training.

Once you have those two lists, consider who and what would have to change and what would have to make that change happen. If it all would center on one or two people, that tells you something. If one or two are the worst offenders and others get drawn into it, that’s something else.

You might also find that some people would disagree about whether or not something is as negative as you think it is. Others may have examples of other things that bother them, and that they want addressed as well. Consider going around the room and asking specific people how they see the workplace, from the viewpoint of interactions, and ask if they see a need for change and what that might be.

You might also find that others would not agree with your ideas about the causes or the solutions. Getting their ideas would help in those areas as well. Sometimes work processes create stress that results in angry words. If the processes are improved, the anger goes away.

3. Here’s another reason to consider making this a supervisory issue rather than one of your own. Is training what is really needed? The fact that people have developed the habit of venting their feelings inappropriately does not necessarily indicate that they need a class about anger management or anything else. Has anyone ever talked to individuals at the time of a negative encounter and told them how it felt when that person yelled or demeaned others? Maybe individual conversations are needed more than training.

If the employees involved thought they would get fired if they yelled at someone again, could they stop yelling? If they could, they don’t need training, they need a reason to stop yelling. If they couldn’t, they undoubtedly need training or psychological help. Many times people behave negatively because there is no compelling reason not to. Sometimes they behave negatively because it’s the only thing that seems to work.

4. If you can bring the team to an understanding of how negative things are, some of them might have ideas for how to make it better. That would be far easier for them to accept than being told what to do. Consider spending your first meeting sharing your feelings and observations, finding out the facts and getting input from everyone about possible solutions. You might find that alone would be enough to wake them up to what is happening and what they should be doing about it.

If your supervisor is present, absolutely involve him. Ask him to share his thoughts about the problem. That may encourage him to fulfill his role in this situation. It would at least make

5. You say HR is supportive of this. Ask them if they have resource lists of books and materials that might be helpful. They certainly should and should have shared those already. Most of the material available to HR professionals is written for supervisors, but may be helpful. The fact that it is written for supervisors ought to tell you also who is expected to handle something this serious.

The book, Letting Go Of Anger: Ten Most Common Anger Styles and What To Do About Them, by a husband wife team, Potter-Efron, is interesting and has some useful ideas. But it is focused on self-help and tends to be rather shallow when it comes to some of the causes of anger. It also is not focused primarily on work. The other book that is often recommended is by Bilodeau and has some practical self-help tips. However, both of these make the assumption that someone wants to be helped!

I am a great fan of the supervisory book by Mager, Analyzing Performance Problems. You may not see that as a book about conflict or anger, but it will help you gain a perspective of this situation. There is even an easy to follow flow chart in the back of the book that takes you through the analytical process and lets you see where action needs to be taken. It focuses on performance, but behavior can be viewed in many of the same ways. I have often used that chart and realized that what I thought was the problem, might not be the main problem after all.

6. I’ll close my thoughts with a reiteration of my first ones: I honor you for trying to help, rather than assuming its someone else’s responsibility. But I do think you should be working closely with a supervisor on this. The fact that everyone seems so willing for you and another colleague to deal with it bothers me, I wonder if they don’t see the need and figure you will find that out. Or, do they hope you won’t succeed and give up? Or, do they simply hope you’ll do their work for them?

You also will want to look at how you can deal with this in the meantime. Take your personal emotions about it out of the situation and confront the behavior as behavior you don’t like, when it happens. If others are involved, not you, they should be dealing with it on their own, rather than waiting for you to speak up.

If the situation is as bad as you say, this is a whole organization issue and you should not be required to deal with it on your own. Having said that—several times!–I do think that having a co-worker express concerns is a way to get the attention of people who may be letting themselves act out their feelings without appropriate censoring. We all have to censor on occasion, and if there were no societal or organizational restraints, many people would be yelling and having temper fits!

I’m going to continue to do some research on this topic and will get back to you as I find something that seems to be particularly helpful. Don’t be surprised, however, if I continue to harp on having your supervisor be more involved! Best wishes as you tackle this difficult challenge.

Working together takes a big WEGO.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.