How Should You Deal With Anger in the Workplace? Very Carefully

© Thomas Perkins - Fotolia.com
© Thomas Perkins - Fotolia.com

By Sara J. Fagnilli

Perhaps it’s simply a reflection of our hectic, fast-paced society today, but it seems like more and more people today are labeled as having anger management issues.

We see it in the classroom. We have certainly all experienced it while driving. And unfortunately, many of us have experienced it at work with a colleague or even the boss.

The challenge is identifying when the “office screamer” steps over the line and becomes an employment-related disciplinary matter. Even more specifically, the challenge for HR managers is to fully understand that this employee with anger management issues could be protected by various laws, especially if the anger is caused by or related to a medical condition.

Dealing with employees who demonstrate anger

So how should employers deal with employees who demonstrate escalating levels of anger management issues?

As is the case with most employment-related disciplinary matters, the answer is — carefully. Each individual situation requires analysis to assess the issues involved and to determine how an employer should proceed.

Are you dealing with the “office bully,” with an employee who consistently loses his or her temper with other employees, customers or clients, or with someone who just has a poor daily demeanor that manifests itself in regular outbursts that are likely not directed at any specific person? Bottom line: is this just an office bully or someone who has a mental impairment?

Workplace bullying, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute, is “repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons … one or more perpetrators … in the form of verbal abuse, offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating or work interference — sabotage — which prevents work from getting done.” Obviously, this definition covers someone who simply behaves badly in the workplace, but it also may describe the actions of an employee with a more serious, underlying behavioral problem.

The office screamer problem

Employers may not, however, play psychologist/psychiatrist in attempting to assess an individual’s actions. Without such an assessment, how can employers realistically and successfully determine the best course of action for handling such behavioral issues without placing a “label” upon the employee?

If the incident is one for which discipline is appropriate, a part of that discipline could presumably involve the requirement that the employee get counseling. While this sounds like a simple, safe and straightforward approach, it could get complicated.

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Requiring an employee with anger problems to get counseling could trigger certain issues and protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA). Requiring an employee to obtain counseling could be found to be equivalent to requiring a medical exam. In order for an employer to avoid a violation of the ADAAA, it must demonstrate that such an exam (or counseling) is job-related and that it is a business necessity.

So what do you do with the “office screamer,” the person who doesn’t necessarily become involved in a confrontation with a co-worker or third party but who has an unpleasant office demeanor that might not otherwise be subject to discipline?

What if it’s not job related?

While that type of behavior could certainly lead to disciplinary action, a wise employer will want to derail that behavior before it escalates into a disciplinary event. It is possible for an employer — without running afoul of ADAAA regulations — to require that an employee attend a group anger management class. This type of group training can assist the employee in managing his or her interactions in the workplace, without necessarily implying that the employee has a mental impairment.

Anger is a significant workplace and societal issue, and there are professionals who deal specifically with anger management. Unfortunately, the source of that anger might not be job related, which means there may be little that an employer can do to solve the cause of the anger. Although the majority of employees do not want their personal issues to impact their job situation, they may feel helpless in their ability to keep such problems from affecting their performance and relationships at work.

When the source of the anger is not job related, the challenge of addressing the issue is more difficult to deal with from an employer’s standpoint. While an employer should be reluctant to delve into an employee’s personal situation, anger left unchecked can have drastic consequences in the workplace and could lead to serious safety and liability concerns.

This is an area in which an employer would be well advised to proceed with caution and to consult with legal counsel early in the process in order to avoid ending up on the wrong end of an EEOC charge or, worse, in the news.

Sara Fagnilli is an attorney with the law firm Walter | Haverfield in Cleveland. She a member of the firm's Labor and Employment, Municipal Law, Public Law and Litigation practice groups. Her experience includes federal and state court litigation and appellate practice in the areas of construction, competitive bidding, easement acquisition, eminent domain, employment labor negotiations, grievance and arbitration, contract drafting, employee benefits, finance, insurance, environmental enforcement, unemployment, workers' compensation defense and administrative appeals. Contact her at sfagnilli@walterhav.com or at (216) 928-2958.

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