Hug Me, Don't Hassle Me: The Hypersensitive Workplace

July 10, 2007

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An article about zero tolerance for workplace jerks received sky-high readership in our last issue. Yet a number of readers also noted the benefits of tough love, pointing to rampant oversensitivity and political correctness in today's business world. This counterargument asks: Where does rudeness end and harassment begin? And when does support for employees turn into handholding?

When you come to work every day, you deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. You deserve a working environment that helps you produce quality work, where communication and interactions are good-natured and not intended to offend. Your employer has a responsibility to assure a workplace environment that is free from harassing treatment. Likewise, you have the responsibility to proffer the same treatment to everyone in the workplace. If an incident or conduct is unwelcome, offensive, degrading or humiliating, then it may violate the law.

This is not under question: bullies, jerks, discriminators and harassers do exist in the workplace.

That said, and as IMT reader G Boettner recently opined, "In today's 'self-esteem is the most important' world … Too many workers today 'feel' put upon for the tiniest infraction."

Indeed, no good purpose is served in any workplace by encouraging oversensitivity, chronic whining, the making of mountains from molehills or the diversion of attention from achieving organizational objectives to fussy over-protection (or what the British may refer to as "mollycoddling").

Usually, one doesn't pursue a discrimination or harassment case unless something significant — ranging from the job itself to one's mental health — is at stake.

Yet there have been cases over whether one's desk is smaller in size than those of colleagues of equal grade, or whether a conference folder is nicer for others at a work meeting. And although rude comments and inconsiderate behavior can be offensive and even harassing, other times it can be harmless. In today's state of politically correct office banter, jokes must be told with carefulness not to offend and one off-color joke inadvertently heard in an employee lounge can turn into a harassment case. When someone gets bent out of shape if a worker says "Shoot from the hip" in reference to a quick decision to a minor problem, it seems a bit excessive.

Is there such a workplace where something unfair doesn't take place? As when facing much of life, a healthy person sucks up the minor things and moves on.

Or, to put it in the way another IMT reader, Chris Buckley, recently explained:

You can't pay me enough to endure abuse in the workplace. I spend way too much time with my coworkers to operate "on eggshells." That is not to mean that we should be complaining about every little thing, however. The world is full of obstacles; our success comes from how we overcome (preferably positively).

Overreacting, Stressing, Whining and Coping The oversensitive worker is often medically distinguished as "the histrionic employee," commonly known as the drama queen or drama king.

"The histrionic employee can cause chaos by overreacting and constantly demanding attention," wrote Mark P. Unterberg, MD a few years ago in a "Managed Healthcare Executive" report entitled Personality Disorders in the Workplace: Reviewing the Drama Queen. Unterberg continued:

Histrionic personality traits are commonly demonstrated through overly emotional reactions to everyday situations. Tension and emotional excitability are combined with inappropriate exaggeration of relatively normal happy, sad or angry feelings.

Workplace incivility originates from many of the same factors that cause rudeness in society as a whole. Stress is probably one of the biggest catalysts. Ironically, the same pressures making some workers ruder may be making others less tolerant of rudeness. People are being asked to produce more with fewer resources. Any time you ask people to do that, you add stress.

It is true that some people are "serial complainers," filing complaints repetitively and based upon slights that are short of a real violation. (Such complainers may also face real discrimination; and even they have a right to be free of retaliation.)

"Whining is often a coping response," University of North Carolina-Charlotte psychology professor Steven Rogelberg told The News & Observer last month.

The Raleigh, N.C., newspaper went on to report:

And these days, we seem to be "coping" more. Grumbling about the boss or the workload or colleagues has been a favorite hobby since about the time man first put tool to stone. But a changing workplace is making workers more brazen about it. Hierarchies are flattening as businesses strive to be more nimble. Uncertainty is rising as global competition makes jobs unstable. A new breed of youth, with less fear of managers, is introducing new dynamics to the office.

Yet this "new breed of youth" might have more to do with the oversensitive workplace than stress-induced whining does.

Is the Workforce About to Require More Support? In fact, the oversensitive workplace is about more than political correctness or the office drama queen/king. Currently — and even more so in the near future — it is also about a strong focus on support where workers previously would have felt micromanaged and dis-empowered.

The wave of 20-somethings heading full force into the working world expects more than a job; this generation "expects a supportive environment," Rich Weissman wrote last month in The Manufacturer.

Now, as we've said before, stereotyping an entire generation; describing each massive group as a generational cohort, essentially lumping together individuals born over several decades, and to proceed to describe a common personality is arrogant. Yet generalized generational differences in the workforce are more obvious today than in almost any other point in history.

And companies are realizing that members of the so-called Generation Y or "millennials" group, born around 1979 and later, are creating a shift in workplace culture that will become even more pronounced as "baby boomers" retire. While tech-savvy, independent, well educated and hard working, a visible number of these young workers simultaneously revel in — and even crave — constant praise.

The annual performance appraisal is not enough. Whereas more experienced workers tend to feel micromanaged if a supervisor is too involved with a project, a notable trait across Gen Y employees is liking frequent contact with their supervisors. According to a 2006 Hudson multigenerational survey, a quarter of both Generation Y and X workers said they want feedback from their bosses at least once a week, if not every day.

The generation is projected to count nearly 63 million members in the workforce by 2014 — the largest since the baby boomers.

In the end, workers have fewer reasons to put up with rude behavior, small indignities and minor incivilities when new job opportunities beckon just around the corner. Yet where is the line drawn between rudeness and harassment, or between support and handholding?

Earlier:

The Civilized Workplace: No Jerks Allowed

All Work, No Play Makes Job a Dull Bore

Resources

Professional Ethics in Engineering: "Shoot from the hip" Eng-Tips Forums, July 2, 2005

Personality Disorders in the Workplace: Reviewing the Drama Queen by Dr. Mark P. Unterberg, MD Managed Healthcare Executive, July 15, 2003

My boss forced me to edit this story about whiners by Jonathan B. Cox The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer, June 4, 2007

The "sensitive" workplace evolves by Rich Weissman The Manufacturer, June 2007

Younger Workers Want More, Connection That Is The Hudson Employment Index, Oct. 18, 2006

Recruiting & Managing the Generations NAS Recruitment Communications, 2007

Additional Resources

Pros and Cons of Fighting Workplace Discrimination by Paul Igasaki IMDiversity (via WSJ.com CareerJournal)

A Look at Sexual Harassment In Today's Work Environment by Paul Igasaki IMDiversity (via WSJ.com CareerJournal)

Don't Take Abuse From the Office Bully by Pauline Rennie Peyton IMDiversity (via WSJ.com CareerJournal)

Ten Choices in the Study of Workplace Mobbing or Bullying by Kenneth Westhues Fifth International Conference on Workplace Bullying (Trinity College, Dublin), June 15-17, 2006

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