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Understanding emotions at work

“If you see something, say something.” As intuitive as it may seem, speaking your mind is hard—especially within the boundaries of an office environment. Most employees face the fear of retaliation and the social costs that come with speaking up to management in difficult situations.

Leora Eisenstadt, assistant professor of Legal Studies, and Deanna Geddes, professor of Human Resource Management at the Fox School, delve deeper into these emotional situations in their interdisciplinary studies. The researchers discuss the implications of expressing anger at the workplace and highlight two problematic legal doctrines that disincentivize employees from making any complaints—thus costing companies.

Leora F. Eisenstadt and Deanna Geddes, Suppressed Anger, Retaliation Doctrine, and Workplace Culture, 20 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business Law 147 (2017). 

Suppressed Anger, Retaliation Doctrine, and Workplace Culture is an interdisciplinary piece combining legal analysis with organizational behavior/psychology research. Suppressed Anger examines and critiques two employment law doctrines on retaliation — the “reasonable belief” doctrine and, what we call, the “manner of the complaint” doctrine and argues that beyond hindering employees’ rights as has been examined in prior scholarship, the law in this area also does a significant disservice to employers by inhibiting emotion expression and thereby negatively affecting workplace culture and productivity. The “reasonable belief” doctrine essentially dictates that for retaliatory conduct to be unlawful, the complaining party must have an objectively reasonable belief that the practices he or she opposed were unlawful, basing the assessment of reasonableness on whether a court would find the practices to be unlawful discrimination. The “manner of the complaint” doctrine arises in cases in which an employer deems the manner of the employee’s complaint regarding discriminatory practices to be insubordinate and fires the employee on that basis. In these cases, courts rarely question an employer’s claim of insubordination, ignoring the circumstances that gave rise to the complaint and focusing solely on the employer’s subjective belief that the employee’s demeanor was unacceptable. The result of both of these doctrines, we argue, is a legal framework that incentivizes employees to stay quiet and refrain from making any complaints.

This piece breaks new ground by drawing on existing scholarship in the psychology and organizational behavior field detailing the negative outcomes when employees suppress anger and other emotions in the workplace, particularly in response to perceived injustice. We use this research to argue that retaliation doctrine inhibits the useful airing of problems that require management attention, instead fomenting worker dissatisfaction and even leading to psychological and physiological issues for individual employees that negatively impact the workplace as a whole. As a result, we maintain that changing retaliation doctrine should not be a goal of workers alone but that employers, upon examining the research on expressions of anger in the workplace should find common ground with their employees.