ARTICLE: Reducing “Desk Rage” in Your Organization

For months, Joe Cline (not his real name) kept his frustration over long hours, cramped quarters and rushed deadlines at an Internet company under wraps. But last month, when his boss needled him one time too many, he erupted, lashing out with an obscenity-laced tirade that I was privileged to witness. As Joe stormed out, I looked at my client…his comment? “Joe’s just a bad employee.” I thought, “Really? Could it be something else?”

If you’ve witnessed people losing their tempers at work, you know it is something else. Have you personally yelled at another employee? Or got angry enough to throw something…a handful of paper clips…a sheaf of papers…a phone…or a bare-knuckle punch to the wall?

This condition has been coined “desk rage,” displays of anger at work that take the form of rudeness, yelling, verbal abuse, attacks on office equipment (usually computers), and fistfights with office-mates. It is caused by workplace stress and long hours, where employees having arguments and cracking under the pressure. 

Road rage, air rage, office rage, desk rage, work rage, bike rage, trolley rage…rage is the word of the moment. Every type of rage is a symptom of the same thing: too many commitments, too little time, and often too small of a space to work. The corralling of thousands of American office workers into cubicles barely bigger than a desk has been termed the “Dilbertization” of the workplace, like the cubicle that confines the cartoon character Dilbert.

From a November 2000 telephone survey of 1,305 working adults in the United States, conducted by Opinion Research Corp for the Wall Street Journal: 

• 1 of 10 Americans say they work in an atmosphere where physical violence has occurred because of stress
• 42% of that total saying their workplace is a place where yelling and verbal abuse takes place. 
• 29% admit to yelling at co-workers because of stress
• 23% were driven to tears because of workplace stress. 
• And 14% said they work where machinery or equipment has been damaged through workplace rage. 

Workplace violence culminating in bloodshed gets the most publicity. But far more common are the shouting matches and fistfights that don’t make the evening news. For example, an employee at an aerospace company in Denver told me that she recently watched, horrified, as two engineers in her office had to be physically separated after a disagreement over the proper procedure for filing paperwork on a faulty computer chip!

Here are some suggestions on what you can do to reduce desk rage in workers:

1. Ensure you are adequately staffed. Since overwork is the number one cause of desk rage, try not to pile too much on one person. Watch for signs of burnout such as excessive absenteeism, clock watching, distractedness, and emotional trouble.

2. Give employees enough room to work. Employees who work in cubicle environments show higher stress levels. So don’t overcrowd the cubicle area or give the bigwigs offices that are just as big or bigger than in the past, while the minions get stuffed into smaller and smaller places.

3. Try to reduce noise levels through higher partitions. Low-level noises such as voices, the clicking of keyboards, and the hum of the photocopier elevate stress hormones in the body. 

4. Confront employee aggression so it doesn’t affect other employees. If the CEO is yelling and screaming at the executive assistant, then the executive assistant will start screaming and yelling at other co-workers. It seems acceptable, and what is modeled will be repeated.

5. Encourage EAP programs and counseling to help employees deal with stress levels. Many people often need professional help beyond your ability.

6. Encourage employees to carpool and use buses to reduce road rage that makes them show up high-strung. Road rage prior to arriving at work can make desk rage more severe.

7. Give employees places and programs to decompress. General Motors Corp has an employee-wellness program that includes meditation and Tai Chi in its workout facilities and a 24-hour help line for harried workers. And Ernst & Young LLP’s new tax center in Indianapolis has golfing areas, fish tanks and a recreation room. Denver Water has private rooms where workers can shut the door and nap. Get creative!

8. Rethink your dress code. There is some preliminary research that may place some blame on business casual dress codes. The casual nature of the dress code may affect the mentality of what is an appropriate business code of behavior. If you are dressed too casually, your behavior might also be too casual.

9. Involve HR or evaluate people on civility. There are no procedures in place to report rudeness in most companies. If an employee is sexually harassed, they know where to go, but companies are not recognizing civility as important or necessary until someone gets shot, slapped, or equipment is damaged. Unfortunately, companies don’t place a priority on workplace civility because it is not against the law the way that discrimination and sexual harassment are. 

10. Hold a seminar on emotional control and courtesy. Companies may soon begin to hold training seminars on manners just as they do for sexual harassment and discrimination. Our clients hire us to help them cope with the stress and rudeness that seems to be about as commonplace as water coolers and copy machines in today’s workplaces. Whether it’s brushing by someone in the hall, calling your assistant incompetent, or cutting someone in line for the fax machine, corporate rudeness takes its toll. A study of 775 employees conducted at the University of North Carolina’s Business School showed that 12% of workers had quit their jobs to avoid nasty people at work, and 45% are thinking about doing so. In addition, more than half of workers lost time worrying about irate or rude people in the office. 

If these examples sound all too familiar, your employees made need a reminder about the importance of common courtesies, emotional control, interpersonal skills, anger management, and social niceties. If you would like more information on scheduling a seminar on-site at your organization, please contact our office. Thank you!

© 2001 Laura Stack. All rights reserved. You are free to use portions of this publication in your company newsletter, provided the following credit is listed at the bottom:

Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is “The Productivity PRO,”® helping people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or visit her website at