People@Work: In Negative Workplaces, Minuses Can Add Up

It's no secret that employees today are working harder than ever despite the economic slowdown. Many employers have cut jobs and frozen hiring, increasing workloads for those staffers who remain. The mantra these days is: "Do more with less."

Workers who survive may find they have little choice but to pitch in by putting in longer hours or skipping vacation days. Given the current state of labor market, those who have jobs are loath to complain about increased workloads lest they, too, find themselves on the unemployment lines.

The strain, however is taking its toll. Among the problems, managers are reporting higher levels of negative attitudes that are harming performance and productivity, according to a survey conducted by Right Management, the career-management consulting arm of Manpower (MAN).

Detrimental to Getting Work Done

About 60% of those polled said negativity is making it more difficult for employees to stay focused, according to the survey of more than 1,400 human-resource managers and executives. Criticism, gossip and lack of teamwork are all contributing to reduced productivity, the poll found. That's a problem for employers because reduced productivity costs companies money.

"Two out of three [of those surveyed] indicated that negativity in the workplace makes it difficult for workers to focus on their jobs and that these attitudes are detrimental to the work that needs to get done," says Michael Haid, senior vice president of global solutions at Right Management.

Workplace negativity is hardly a new phenomenon, Haid says. "But it's fair to speculate that difficult business conditions, along with disruptive levels of change, make the current situation worse." Such negativity manifests itself in conflicts among employees, sarcastic remarks and absenteeism, among other behaviors.

A third of the survey respondents said management has taken steps to address negative attitudes or troublesome behaviors, Haid says. "It can become contagious, and management can't just stand by."

Productivity Is on the Rise

Despite the survey's results, there are no data to suggest that worker productivity is slipping. Indeed, in its latest quarterly report on productivity released earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that productivity increased 2.5% during the last four quarters, as worker output rose 4.1% and the number of hours worked increased 1.6%.

There's no data to back up the claim that negativity is costing businesses money, says Christy Caridi, director of the Bureau of Economic Research at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Still, it makes sense that negative attitudes displayed by fellow employees or supervisors would affect the workers around them, says Christopher Collins, professor of human-resource management at Cornell University.

"I don't know if I've seen the relationship to productivity," Collins says. "But it certainly has a negative effect on engagement in the organization." Employee engagement is a buzz phrase that entered the business lexicon several years ago to describe workers' performance and enthusiasm on the job, and their loyalty to employers.

Pushing Blame Up the Ladder

Collins' own experience and some research reveal that "negative behavior from front-line supervisors is particularly damaging" to employee engagement. Executives say it's not uncommon for midlevel managers to blame unwelcome changes in the workplace on corporate decision-making, to deflect worker anger away from themselves, he says.

Shifting blame further up the corporate ladder, however, can negatively alter employees' attitudes about the company and its mission. So called "disengaged" employees are a potential problem for employers as the economy continues to recovery. "As soon as things pick up [workers] are going to be splitting for a better job elsewhere," Collins says.

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So what can employers do? Workers function at their highest level when employees are engaged to their fullest. That means they like their boss, their colleagues, the company they work for and the work they're doing. So it's important to ferret out any negative Nellies, especially if they're in a supervisory capacity.

It's important to identify those with negative attitudes and not let them fester, Collins says. There may be a good reason why an employee is unhappy, and the problem can be fixed. But sometimes it can't, and it's important to recognize that.

Sometimes, people are just negative. In those instances, employers need to find a place where such employees might be a better fit. "If someone is really unhappy," Collins says, "do something about it. Don't just let it go."

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