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Emotions at Work

August 28th, 2019

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“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.

A Cycle of Discontentment

When employees suppress anger at work, it not only affects their mental well-being but also their attitudes—often resulting in lowered productivity. “When employees fear the consequences of retaliation by management,” says Geddes, “they tend to either suppress it by keeping silent, or express their frustration to their peers, who usually have no power to respond or effect change.” These negative discussions often spiral into increasing discontentment among employees that impact the overall health of the workplace. 

Reactions vs. Retaliation 

In the face of perceived discrimination, employees may turn to the courts for help in resolving disputes. However, Eisenstadt argues that current legal frameworks may negatively affect employees’ willingness to speak up in the judicial system. Currently, judges use the following two legal doctrines in an effort to promote consistency across similar cases but frequently end up disenfranchising employees. 

  • The “Objectively Reasonable Belief” doctrine protects only those employees who complain about behavior that the courts would regard as unlawful. Given that employees do not typically understand the nuances of court decisions, this may make employees hesitant to come forward because they are unsure if their complaint will be protected by the law.
  • The “Manner of the Complaint” doctrine supports employers who claim the reason for firing an employee was the ‘inappropriate’ way in which the complaint was raised, without serious consideration to the details of the complaint itself.

Eisenstadt argues that the consequences of these court-created approaches are clear. “Employees, upon seeing how these doctrines play out for their co-workers, choose to keep silent,” she says. This not only hinders the goals of the law, which is meant to protect employees from workplace discrimination but the culture and worker productivity at the workplace also suffer.

A Call For Change

Not all emotions at work lead to discord, says Geddes. “Psychological research demonstrates that expressions of anger to management in any form—whether it be in respectful complaints or in emotional outbursts—is healthier and more productive for both the worker and the workplace overall.” 

So what happens next? The researchers advise that companies build a culture of open dialogue within their organizations to promote expression up and down management lines. Nonhierarchical, team-based structures, leadership’s encouragement of meaningful debate and clear channels for expressing opinions all help employers address emotions while the employee is still in the workplace. 

Eisenstadt and Geddes also suggest that the court system rethink its implementation of the existing retaliation doctrines. They propose that the judiciary take an approach that considers the circumstances that led to retaliation and view the scenario from all relevant perspectives, not just the employers. “This more global approach would undoubtedly create a greater sense of security in employees,” says Eisenstadt.

This article is a sneak peek of the next issue of On The Verge, the Fox School’s flagship research magazine. For more stories, visit www.fox.temple.edu/ontheverge.

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