September 3, 2007
WHEN CO-WORKERS ATTACK: REALITY TV SHOW UNLEASHES WORKPLACE AGGRESSION
If the caustic title of the e-mail, "You Are Worthless," was not enough to make the information technology worker on the receiving end look over his shoulder, perhaps its venomous substance did.
"I hope some day the rest of the office sees you for the small . . . pathetic IT loser you are and beats you within an inch of your life in the parking lot," read the message sent through annoyingcoworker.net, an online service that allows workers exasperated with colleagues to confront them with anonymous e-mails.
Verbal outbursts, furtive acts of cubicle sabotage and spontaneous destruction of furniture abound in the modern workplace. The office rage has even extended into cyberspace, spawning online forums where workers detail their gripes with the gum-snapping in the next pod.
Now a New York-based film production company is looking to tap the unbridled vitriol of pencil pushers everywhere for a reality television show that would pit adversarial co-workers against each other in full-on fisticuffs.
The brainchild of Red Line Films, Office Fight would have colleagues agree to train for two weeks with a professional pugilist and ultimately duke out their differences over three rounds in their office or a gym. The company is now soliciting volunteers for a pilot.
A recent stroll around the financial district in Toronto, perhaps the citadel of office culture in Canada, revealed no apparent shortage of repressed aggression bursting from the buttoned-up collars on Bay Street.
"Oh, I could think of a few people right now that I'd like to fight," said Mark, 26, an impeccably groomed law student who inhaled a Players outside his corporate law office recently with the edgy enthusiasm of a man on the brink of a breakdown.
For three months he has been articling at the firm, which, along with his last name, he asked not be published for fear of recrimination. Pushy partners and associates were working him to the bone, he said. But it was the constant tink, tink, tink of fingernails being clipped in their offices that was pushing Mark overboard.
"Just seeing them every day at this point is enough to make me want to fight them," he said. "I mean, cutting your fingernails in the office? It's disgusting!"
Two blocks north, nail clippers could offer a welcome respite from the tap, tap, tap that 31-year-old insurance adjuster Adam said he endures day in and day out at the hands of a female colleague with overgrown and intricately decorated nails.
"Give me the clippers, I'll cut them myself," said Adam, who works for a major insurance firm and asked that his last name and the name of his company not be printed. "I wouldn't fight her over it because she's a girl, but there are days I'd like to pull them out with a pair of pliers."
Workplace horror stories are as common as a filched sandwich from the lunchroom refrigerator.
There is the know-it-all colleague who suffers from smartest-person-in-the-room syndrome; the overbearing boss whose criticism is as gentle as Leona Helmsley, and the gossip so vicious a sixth-grade girl is tame by comparison.
Despite the irritation, 54 per cent of respondents in an online survey conducted last year by truejobs.com said they had never considered confronting their tormentor.
Workers tend to keep their grievances with others bottled up because they fear a backlash and because they believe their gripes won't be taken seriously, said Kevin Kelloway, a professor of management at Saint Mary's University in Nova Scotia.
"Most of us don't have the option of leaving our job, and if we confront someone and it goes wrong, you're going to have to live with it every day," Dr. Kelloway said. "The most likely reaction is that a supervisor will tell you to grow up and deal with it."
Over the years, he has heard countless instances of workplace violence, from the underling who threatened colleagues with a hunting knife to a subordinate defecating in his boss's car. He said that by far the most common complaint is that a co-worker isn't pulling his or her weight.
The inclination to avoid confrontation has given rise to a host of websites that provide a forum for workers to gripe.
Annoyingcoworker.net is loaded with hostile ("You are pathetic ... and everybody hates you") and at times humorous ("When you eat onions for lunch your breath smells like baby poo ...") e-mails sent through the site to recipients unaware of their irksome ways.
At another site, disgruntledworkforce.com, people shielded by the anonymity of the Internet rant without consequences about their "pointless meetings" and their "lazy, disgusting co-workers."
Some people, however, take their anger public.
A 2006 survey of about 2,900 workers in the United States found that 41 per cent reported experiencing some form of psychological aggression, including being threatened or having obscenities shouted at them. Six per cent said they were victims of physical violence.
In Canada, about 1,000 violent incidents a day are reported in the workplace, according to Statistics Canada, although the vast majority are in professions that deal directly with the public, such as driving a bus or taxi.
Aaron Schat, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at McMaster University who worked on the U.S. poll, sees what he calls "covert aggression" like spreading rumours as being particularly damaging to workplace peace.
"People tend to complain to other people and just seethe and that's not healthy either," Dr. Schat said. "Confrontation can be useful and good, but it really does depend on the nature of the issue and the type of confrontation."
Bullies at work
On a day intended to give labourers across the country an escape from the stress of work, millions are fretting about returning to their jobs because of a workplace bully, a recent survey suggests.
Nearly half of all workers in the United States reported having suffered or witnessed workplace bullying such as verbal insults, job sabotage and abuse of authority, according to a Zogby Interactive poll conducted for the Workplace Bullying Institute.
The survey found that 37 per cent of workers are currently being pushed around or have been bullied by a colleague at some point in their lifetime, and 40 per cent of those people said harassment had pushed them to quit in the past.
"It's clearly a silent epidemic," said Gary Namie, director of the institute, a non-profit organization based in Washington State seeking to eradicate workplace aggression.
Forty per cent of victims reported never complaining about the bullying, while 62 per cent said notifying their boss had resulted either in no change in the behaviour or an escalation of it. Perhaps that is because bosses were identified as the culprits in nearly three-quarters of bullying cases.
Women reported being victimized more than men - 57 per cent to 43 per cent - and said their aggressors were far more likely to be other women. Aggression perpetrated by men was inflicted almost evenly on men and women.
The online poll surveyed 7,740 workers across the United States in August.
Daybreak Counseling Service